Citizen Science for Climate Resilience: Participatory Mapping at Cove Mountain Preserve

By Preston Welker, January 2018

Cove Mountain Preserve along the Kittatinny Ridge © Shawn Hickey/The Nature Conservancy

“The Kittatinny Ridge: 185 Miles. 360,000 acres. 80% forest and shrub habitat. 7 important mammal areas. Global important bird area.” – Kittatinny Ridge Coalition.

As our global climate warms, local ecosystems change, causing wildlife to migrate in search of new habitat. Scientists at The Nature Conservancy have identified Pennsylvania’s Kittatinny Ridge as a climate resilient habitat corridor, an essential connector for species migrating from southern Appalachia through the Keystone State into the boreal forests of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. However the Kittatinny Coalition, an alliance of conservation organizations working to protect the ridge, describes that only 40% of lands along the ridge are permanently conserved. The remaining acres of rich forested lands face the constant pressure of logging and development.

The Nature Conservancy engaged local communities through citizen science to create a flagship preserve where people can connect with nature and build support for conserving this 185 mile-long migratory corridor for climate resilience.

Cove Mountain Preserve is located at the heart of the Kittatinny Ridge. Being just a 15 minute drive from Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg, the preserve provides a nature sanctuary for people from all walks of life. When hiking to the lookout over the mighty Susquehanna River students, landowners, donors, and stat legislators can learn about the greater conservation effort of the Kittatinny Coalition.

Cove Mountain Preserve’s historical use for timber harvesting presented a number of conservation challenges that required creative solutions. When purchased by The Nature Conservancy in 2017, the preserve’s 350 acres were largely overgrown with the invasive plant “mile-a-minute” (persicaria perfoliata) and contained a maze of abandoned logging roads that had been used for decades as informal hiking paths by neighboring residents.

The goal was to establish maintained trails that enhanced recreation opportunities, showcased the four forest-types and unique species found at the preserve, and also allowed extensive habitat restoration efforts to progress undisturbed. To develop a comprehensive management plan that also worked for the community, The Nature Conservancy invited community members to participate in a citizen science mapping project.
Citizen science involves rigorous research conducted in collaboration with everyday people. Scientists have long recognized the value of local and Indigenous knowledge in conservation management. Studies have shown that including local people helps to increase system resilience and the long-term success of management efforts (Berkes and Folke, 1998). At Cove Mountain Preserve, The Nature Conservancy trained community volunteers to use the free data collection application Avenza Maps on tablets, enabling them to navigate in the field and translate their local knowledge into geospatial data.

Citizen scientists mapped Cove Mountain’s maze of logging roads by producing GPS tracks as they hiked. Important features, such as rare species or management issues were logged with GPS points, where conditions could be described with georeferenced digital photos and field notes.

A citizen scientist collects geolocated photos and field notes at a point of interest © Preston Welker
Citizen scientists identified and mapped a diversity of features including habitat of the threatened Allegheny Woodrat, locations of federally protected vernal pools, unique geological formations, illegal dumping sites, and the range of invasive vegetation species. 

All citizen science data were then combined into an interactive ArcGIS Online webmap. This tool enabled The Nature Conservancy to prioritize restoration efforts and design a network of trails the community felt ownership in, while showcasing preserve resources and minimizing ecological impact.
  Data collected by citizen citentists (left) was used to create a sustainable trails network (right) © Preston Welker

By Fall of 2017, almost three miles of trails were cut, blazed, and ready for guided hikes. To celebrate the opening of Cove Mountain Preserve, members of the Kittatinny Coalition brought together citizen scientists, community members, landowners, and state policy makers. New collaborations were forged while enjoying a local delicacy, native paw-paw fruit sustainably harvested from Penn’s Woods.

By taking a collaborative adaptive-planning approach and leveraging technology, The Nature Conservancy secured one more piece in the puzzle of a network of resilient and connected landscapes. While a rapidly changing climate could be daunting, Cove Mountain Preserve stands as a beacon along the Kittatinny Ridge by demonstrating a world is possible where both people and nature thrive.

Are you interested in becoming a citizen scientist, conserving your land along the Kittatinny Ridge, or supporting The Nature Conservancy’s goal to Tackle Climate Change? There are a number of ways you can get involved:

  • Visit Cove Mountain Preserve: Plan your trip at the Cove Mountain Preserve webpage and leave your review on AllTrails.

  • Want to become a citizen scientist?Contact The Nature Conservancy Pennsylvania’s volunteer coordinator ( to learn about current opportunities.

  • Pennsylvania landowner interested in learning about conserving your land? Visit the Kittatinny Ridge Coalition for more information on the different options ranging from fee purchase to conservation easements (where you retain ownership). Also, contact The Nature Conservancy Pennsylvania office ( to start the conversation.  

  • For educators and university students: Contact The Nature Conservancy Pennsylvania ( to organize a guided hike that details how the local ecology fits into the greater initiative to adapt to climate change. University students can talk with your research advisor then contact the Pennsylvania office about possible research partnerships.

  • Consider making a donation to The Nature Conservancy. Work at the frontlines of the climate change would not be possible without the generous donations of those who believe a world is possible were both people and nature thrive. Becoming a member and making regular donations are some of the biggest ways to make an impact and help The Nature Conservancy tackle climate change. You can make a donation here.