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Lehigh Gap Nature Center Moravian College Community Partner

MC Spotlight 20/20

Community Partner Spotlight: The Lehigh Gap Nature Center (LGNC)
Dan Kunkle, Executive Director

As we celebrate our 275th anniversary as an educational institution, it is appropriate to consider the historical threads that connect to some of the college’s current activities. Ties between the Lehigh Gap region and the Moravians go way back; the earliest white visitors to this region were the Moravian Missionaries in the 1740s and historical accounts of those missions (in the Moravian Archives) describe the natural environment as the “wildness” that existed north of the “Blue Ridge” (or what we now know as Blue Mountain or the Kittatinny Ridge). This is the same time frame as the founding of the school that would become Moravian College. So it seems fitting to shine a spotlight on a partnering organization that now sits at the Lehigh Gap and to where so many of our students make the trek to from Bethlehem as part of a class or for scholarly pursuits.

The Lehigh Gap Nature Center, which purchased land at the Lehigh Gap site in 2002—a site that after those early Moravian Missions, became a critical transportation corridor for the Industrial Revolution in this country and the site of a zinc smelter operation. Decades of pollution from this industry, however, took its toll on the “wildness” described by the early missionaries and led serious loss of vegetation and contamination, and the area being designated as a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

LGNC has as its mission to protect the wildlife and enhance the habitats of the original 750+ acres of their Refuge and the neighboring Kittatinny Ridge. The organization promotes conservation in the Lehigh River Watershed through education, research, and outdoor recreation for the benefit of present and future generations, and their vision is one of hope. In the process of healing the land – land that is a part of largest Superfund site east of the Mississippi River —LGNC built a community engaged in conservation, education and research. In telling their story of rejuvenation, LGNC seeks to inspire others to do what some judge as impossible for our planet – to restore natural functions and beauty where they have been damaged and to protect those places that remain ecologically healthy. Many Moravian College classes have visited the site for students to witness firsthand the results of this rare “good news” outcome of an environmentally damaged landscape.

“I really enjoy the visits from the College class because they ask such good questions that make me think deeply about what we are doing.” says Center Director Dan Kunkle. "Because the partnership with Moravian has provided both leadership in the form of Board of Directors members/officers and program leaders and the student research projects have provided us with so much valuable information, we hope to continue and strengthen the ties with Moravian College. While LGNC works with more than a dozen academic institutions, our partnership with Moravian has been the most productive and important of our academic partner relationships."

Since 2005, Moravian College has partnered with LGNC, initially bringing students to the site for class field trips to see the only highly contaminated Superfund site in the country that has been restored to a wildlife refuge and environmental education center. Students in these courses participated in data collection for the center, leading to the recognition of the role that Moravian students and faculty could play in assisting in the restoration process. To date, more than 20 SOAR students and several Honors students have done research at the site. In addition, several Moravian students have visited the refuge and participated in research projects through ecology courses and some have served as interns at LGNC or for restoration work within the larger Palmerton Superfund site. Two college employees, Ron Kline and Diane Husic, are long time board members for the organization. In addition, Dr. Kline is the coordinator of the annual Bake Oven Knob Hawk Count that is run by the LGNC and Dr. Husic is the research coordinator, both volunteer positions.

"I think what surprised me most as a student working at the LGNC was the power of citizen science," says Sarabeth Brockley '10. "I didn't know the word very well going into my research there with Dan and Dr. Husic, but over the course of 2-years, I lived, breathed and understood it fully when I left. That was the magic Dan gifted me, that you can be curious, and you can solve problems in your backyard, and you can do it as a scientist, or as a citizen. Powerful."

The results of student and faculty research led to the completion of the extensive second Ecological Assessment of the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge, has provided important guidance for the adaptive management of the site for both LGNC and the EPA, and has yielded several national conference presentations and publications. Both Dr. Husic and professor Frank Kuserk have advised multiple students doing research at the refuge, which helps to inform our management decisions. Kunkle says, “We need good information gathered from research and monitoring on our site to make good management decisions. The work of the Moravian students has provided a great deal of that valuable information.”

“I had such a positive experience at LGNC and have many great memories of my time there," says Meredith Wright '10. My favorite part of working there, in addition to being surrounded by such intelligent and positive people, was being part of a successful environmental reclamation story. The efforts of everyone at the Lehigh Gap is living proof that a few people can make a huge difference.”

Besides the work at the nature center, LGNC has a number of projects in the Lehigh Valley including the Landscaping for Communities and Wildlife initiative funded by a grant from the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation. The rain garden on south campus by the HILL got its start from a sub-grant from this project. Executive Director Kunkle also engages students from the Roberto Clemente School in Allentown in the annual Conservation Leadership Academy. Participants in this academy spend one day at Moravian learning about life on campus, student research, our tree inventory and garden projects, etc.

The College and LGNC also partner on STEM workshops for educators, public lectures, conservation work and ecological monitoring along the Kittatinny Ridge, and the Eastern PA Phenology Project – a citizen science project aimed at gaining an understanding of the regional impacts of climate change.

Both the nature center and college look forward to ongoing collaborations.