2014-10-04 / Outdoors

Elk tourism success story assured for decades

As we close the door on another September, we realize what a major economic and social force “elk tourism” has become.

Its epicenter is the appropriately named Elk County, but the elk herd also has a major presence in Cameron County and can be found in fewer numbers in several other Pennsylvania Wilds counties

This has not happened by accident; much less by the evolution of natural species. In fact, we wiped out Pennsylvania’s native elk herd long ago.

Today’s herd, descendants of transplanted elk from decades ago, has had a rocky history leading up to the steady managed growth of the past two decades.

The elk have had plenty of help. Financial support and on-the-ground labor have come from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, resulting in thousands of acres of elk habitat acquisition and improvement.

Both the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry, have been active partners.


A life-sized sculpture at the Elk County Visitors Center entrance is popular for tourist photos. Debbie Lewis Lamantia, daughter of retired Susquehannock District Forester Bob Lewis, was among center visitors. A life-sized sculpture at the Elk County Visitors Center entrance is popular for tourist photos. Debbie Lewis Lamantia, daughter of retired Susquehannock District Forester Bob Lewis, was among center visitors. In more recent years, the group that has pulled together multiple resources with determination and great success is the Keystone Elk Country Alliance (KECA).

This non-profit organization is focused exclusively on the Pennsylvania elk herd and the magnificent 245-acre Elk Country Visitor Center near Benezette.

Conservation education is KECA’s top priority, supported through public programs, distance-learning initiatives and more, much of it focused on school students. Habitat maintenance is also a major focus, through mowing, planting and other projects involving both public and private land.

Rawley Cogan serves as president and CEO of the alliance. Rawley was heavily involved with the sound management of Pennsylvania’s elk herd as a biologist for the Game Commission and he has shown the same passion ever since.

Future of the Elk Country Visitor Center was secured in June when the state signed a 35-year agreement with KECA for operation of the facility – which is on state-owned land -- with no state funds involved.

The center is open year round and includes a 4-D story theater with special effects that explore the sight, smells and sounds of the area; interactive and interpretive exhibits; wildlife trails and viewing areas; wagon and sleigh rides; educational programming and parking for cars, RVs and buses.

“We’re pleased and proud to partner with the Commonwealth to operate this world-class destination,” Cogan said in the state’s official news release announcing the pact. “KECA’s educational and stewardship programs provide a clear and consistent conservation message and continue to attract more and more guests to Pennsylvania’s Elk Country. Local businesses continue to expand and create new jobs that fuel economic development in the region.”

The new agreement requires a significant capital investment by KECA, which is building an outdoor classroom to accommodate more educational programs and special events at the center.

Politicians were quick to cite some flattering numbers: annual attendance of 350,000; 12 jobs created; more than 60 small local vendors and artisans; a doubling of lodging establishments near the center; and the opening of three wineries, all with an elk theme, along with expansion of local stores and restaurants.

Pennsylvania now has in the neighborhood of 900 animals – the largest elk herd in the northeastern United States.

That number was less than 100 as recently as the 1970s.

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