Gov. Corbett spotlights ecotourism in treasure hunt with children at Bald Eagle State Park

Gov. Tom Corbett, accompanied by several children, looked into the pile of logs.

Corbett was on a geocaching expedition Friday during a visit to Bald Eagle State Park. He and his young partners hoped a cache, or clue in their treasure hunt, rested amid the wood.

“Nope,” Corbett said as the search revealed just old leaves. “That would have been a good place.”

They had the right idea. Seconds later, the cache turned up in a nearby pile — and the hunt was on.

In a departure from his usual routine in Harrisburg, Corbett spent the day outdoors finishing a three-day promotion tour of central Pennsylvania waterways to highlight the state as a tourism draw.

On Wednesday, he kayaked the Juniata River near Huntingdon, visited Raystown Lake and stopped by the Huntingdon County Fair. The next day took him kayaking down the same river in Perry County, and then a visit to Gettysburg to tour the national park with schoolchildren.

For the trip finale, he kayaked along Bald Eagle Creek from Blanchard and then on Sayers Lake in Bald Eagle State Park. At the park’s Nature Inn, he and his wife, Susan Corbett, joined state agency and department heads, Centre and Clinton county commissioners and local tourism leaders for a lunch of locally grown food.

As diners dug into blackberry cobblers, Gov. Corbett, an experienced kayaker, said that his morning had been “a wonderful trip” and “very educational.” He praised the Nature Inn, a green lodge with geothermal heating, water-saving fixtures and energy-efficient lights, saying it should continue to draw visitors to the park and help stimulate the local economy.

“This is such a huge part of the economy, tourism,” he said. “It leads to development. It leads to growth, projects across the state.”

According to the governor’s office, Pennsylvania brings in an estimated $3.3 billion annually in economic benefit from boating and fishing on its 85,000 miles of rivers and streams and 76 natural lakes. Tourism is the state’s second-largest industry, accounting for about 300,000 jobs statewide, according to the governor’s office.

Corbett, in a news release, said he has toured state parks in different regions for the past three years “to showcase Pennsylvania as a vast state with an abundance of things to see and do.”

Though the state budget gave more than $7 million for tourism marketing, and Corbett on Friday pledged his commitment to tourism and its value to the state, two years ago his budget proposal slashed funding for tourism marketing and state park operations.

For the 2012-13 budget, Corbett went as far as to propose eliminating all conservation, park and recreation funding from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund, which supports many state park infrastructure projects. The state legislature restored the funding.

Corbett, though, kept the Keystone funding intact for the 2013-14 budget, and on Friday, he said he’ll support tourism and outdoor recreation even in times of budget crunches.

“It is an issue, and unfortunately, we’ve had to be tight on the budget because you can only spend that what you bring in in revenue,” he said.

“And one of the things we’re trying to do, frankly, is bring in more revenue. We drastically reduced tourism two years ago. We’ve grown it back a little bit. I’d like to see us grow it back even more.”

After lunch, the Corbetts explored the outdoors around the Nature Inn with nine local children while trying their hand at geocaching.

First came a tutorial from Matt Truesdale, the park’s environmental educator, who explained about the activity and how to program coordinates into the small geocaching GPS devices that satellites track to determine cache locations.

Most of the children quickly picked up the programming. The Corbetts, laughing and joking about their eyes, needed a little extra guidance.

Once outside, as a gentle rain fell, the group proceeded on a search to find out Pennsylvania’s state fossil. The first cache offered 400-million-year-old fossils found in the park, fossil photos and coordinates to the second stop, below the inn on a hillside trail.

Along the way, Gov. Corbett walked with Mitchell Holden, 11, a Boy Scout from near Howard who holds a geocaching merit badge. They talked about geocaching and scouting.

“I was a Boy Scout growing up, too, but I didn’t make it to Eagle Scout, almost but not quite,” Corbett told Mitchell.

Later on the trail, Corbett said he thought geocaching was “pretty neat.”

“It’s another thing to do outdoors,” he said. “We’ve got to get people out from behind desks and computers and outdoors.”

At the third and final cache, after a few more clues, a boy guessed the search’s secret. Once everyone knew trilobites were the state fossils, Truesdale showed around a specimen from near the lake, and the Corbetts’ wet geocaching debut ended with smiles.

But before he left for home, the governor stood on a Nature Inn porch and reiterated how important tourism is to the state and to communities.

“You stand out here and look out at the mountain across the way and I can just imagine what that’s going to look like in 21/2 months when the foliage is out,” he said. “I’m sure there will be a lot of people coming up here every day of the week to take a look.”