From Idea to Reality: The Wildlife Center’s 2002 Transition

Lehigh Gap Restoration Project

The following article was published in the Spring 2003 issue of Wildlife Activist.
by Robert E. Hoopes

2002 was a pivotal year for the Wildlife Center. Both the short-term and long-term focus of the organization radically changed as a result of the past year’s events.  Early in the year the Board of Directors conceived a bold strategy focusing attention on the Lehigh Gap and the degraded landscape on the north side of the Blue Mountain opposite Palmerton.  This lead to negotiations that resulted in agreements to purchase more than 750 acres of land…the entire north side of the mountain from the Lehigh Gap to the PA Turnpike tunnel. In parallel with the acquisition process, which took most of the year, we also developed and marketed a bold plan to restore the degraded sections of the newly acquired land utilizing warm season grasses, and to open all of the land for environmentally-sensitive recreation.

The power of imagination is enormous.  When we first discussed the concept of acquiring land in the Lehigh Gap, the Board ignored the reasons why the concept would not work…and there were many, including the huge acquisition cost.  But our imagination powered us to a new level of what could be. What if we could secure the land, restore it, protect its wildlife and habitat, and open it to the public for recreational use?  What if we could create a legacy that would carry forth into future generations?  A legacy about reversing the ravages of the industrial revolution in one small part of our planet Earth – a powerful message to groups elsewhere that live with degraded landscapes.

The power of imagination suggested we could. The collective knowledge and experience of our Board members and Executive Director Dan Kunkle made it happen.  The Board of Directors of the Wildlife Center is proud to report to you, our loyal membership, that we have succeeded. While there is still much work and financing to do, we have completed Phase I of the Lehigh Gap Restoration Project.  This phase involved securing the land, which we have named the LEHIGH GAP WILDLIFE REFUGE.  Read on and learn about the exciting details of our 2002 accomplishments, along with our 2003 plans.
The Lehigh Gap Restoration Project

The Lehigh Gap Restoration Project (LGRP) was the Center’s main focus in 2002 and continues to be a major focus in 2003.  The project consists of four parts:  1) securing the land, 2) raising the funds to pay for the land, 3) working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Viacom and others to restore the land, and 4) opening the land to the public for low-impact recreational activities.

We secured the three contiguous tracts of land that make up the 750+ acres bounded by the Appalachian Trail along the top of the mountain, the PA Turnpike tunnel to the west, the Lehigh River and the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor trail along the base of the mountain, and the Lehigh Gap to the east.  We signed the agreement of sale for the third tract in early December…a significant milestone for the project.

We are currently in the process of raising funds to pay for the land and to create a sustaining endowment to fund the Center’s future care and maintenance of the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge.  To date, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources awarded $250,000 for the project, PPL Corporation provided a $20,000 grant, the Century Fund provided $15,000 and the Holt Family Foundation contributed $1,000.  The Center’s Board of Directors also provided financial support by pledging/contributing more than $15,000.  Last but certainly not least, our members and friends have responded very generously to the Center’s capital campaign.  To date a total of $16,454 has been pledged to the project by 87 individuals, with $9,078 of the pledges already fulfilled.  Our efforts continue to secure funds from a variety of sources to meet our financial goals for the project.

The restoration work on the degraded landscape has already begun.  Livengood Excavating began the earth moving repair work on the upper railroad bed in March.  This railroad bed carried the Lehigh and New England Railroad from 1912 to 1961 along the western side of the Lehigh River until it crossed the river near the Devil’s Pulpit to continue its run toward New Jersey.  Years of neglect since the railroad was abandoned have resulted in serious erosion problems along much of the bed.  Our partner Viacom (corporate owners of Horsehead Resources Development Company in Palmerton, successor to the original polluter, and responsible for re-vegetation) is working with the Wildlife Center to convince the EPA to modify the Superfund Record of Decision concerning this land.  This original order requires immediate reforestation of the land, while the Center’s proposed approach calls for re-vegetation with warm season grasses.  The grasses will stabilize the slopes and begin the process of soil building.  Eventually a forest will return by natural succession.  Since Viacom needs vehicle access to the degraded areas in order to implement the this re-vegetation plan, they are funding the railroad bed repair and upgrade which will also prevent future erosion problems and stabilize the bed as a future hiking trail.

The Center’s plan for re-vegetating the land with warm season grasses that thrive in poor soil conditions and are fire- and drought-tolerant, is based on the successful use of these grasses for restoration projects throughout the Northeast.  Besides working with Jim Frank and Chris West, Viacom’s consulting engineers, we have relied heavily on the mentoring of Bill Mineo, who has experience working with these grasses in Chester County, at the Delaware Water Gap NRA, and at his own farm.  In addition, Dan has been consulting directly with John Dickerson of the United States Department of Agriculture, who co-authored an authoritative book on land restoration using warm season grasses, and who has directed numerous revegetation projects in the Northeast using these grasses.  Dan’s efforts, with the help of this expert advice, helped Viacom gain EPA approval for the Center’s approach.

The best news of all is that the seeding operation is scheduled to begin in April 2003.  The area along the upper railroad bed will be seeded first to stabilize the slopes disturbed by the excavation/repair work along the bed.  In addition, test plots totaling 50 acres or more will be planted by Viacom to determine the best seed mix and soil amendments for future full scale planting.  Soil amendments include such things as lime to neutralize acid, fertilizer, and mulch.

This means we can expect to see parts of the degraded areas of the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge re-vegetated with warms season grasses within two to three years.  When the seeds of these grasses germinate, they spend the first year or two sending roots deep into the soil, eventually extending more than 10 feet below the surface.  Once this root growth is well-established, the top growth reaches full height, providing visible evidence that the recovery of the land is underway!

Our 2003 plans also call for opening the land to public access. Hikers can access the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge from the Appalachian and “Blue” Trails along the top of the mountain and from the D&L Trail along the river.  The Wildlife Center has moved its headquarters to one of the buildings located on this land in the Lehigh Gap adjacent to the D&L Trail.  We hope to establish one or more trails across the refuge property connecting the Appalachian and D&L Trails.  In addition, we will also upgrade an existing trail connecting the Center’s Headquarters at the Osprey House in the Gap to the upper railroad bed.  These connecting trails will provide visitors with several hiking “loops” of varying difficulty.  We believe that these trails will attract many visitors from the local community and beyond to the refuge and the Wildlife Center.

The Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor Trail, extending all the way from Bristol to Wilkes Barre, will be completed within approximately two years.  When finalized, this work will provide upgraded public access to the trail via Paint Mill Road off of Route 873 just south of the Lehigh River Bridge.  This will include visitor parking, river access, and visitor interpretive displays. We are very excited about the D&L Trail plans because they directly support the Center’s efforts to open our new wildlife refuge to public access, and in turn, will add value to the D&L Trail experience.

To keep the public informed about the plans and progress for the Lehigh Gap Restoration Project, Executive Director Dan Kunkle has been very active over the last six months developing news releases and conducting presentations to numerous civic, governmental and corporate organizations. By Dan’s count he has made about 25 such presentations to groups such as rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, and outdoor groups.  Informing the public is the best way to generate support for the project and Dan’s efforts have done just that.  The LGRP is highly praised by everyone who hears about it.

A Good Move

A major event in the evolution of the Wildlife Center occurred on December 6 and 7 when we moved our office and library from downtown Slatington to the Osprey House at Lehigh Gap.  This is the first time in our history we own our own land and office/education center.

Through good advanced planning and preparations, along with good coordination on the two moving days, all of our office equipment, library books and shelves, filing cabinets and other materials were moved to the Osprey House and set up for operation by mid-afternoon on the 7th.  The moving team then celebrated with a luncheon prepared by Center president, Ken Medd, Ron Kline, and others.  Special thanks for helping with this move go out to all of those who donated their time and energy: Ted Beltz, Deborah Dorn, Jeff Frantz, Brad Fritzges, Geryl Grilz, Bob Hoopes, Ron Kline, Michal Kubic & Linda Frederick and their daughter Clare, Dan & Cheryl Kunkle, Ken Medd, Dave Reitz, Kathy & Frank Romano and their daughter Carolyn, Ed Wanamaker, Eric Wolfgang, and our lost friend, the late Jason Moore.

By the time you receive this, we will have had our grounds clean-up weekend on March 22-23.  To continue improving the Osprey House grounds, we have partnered with Cedar Crest College student Lori Kunkle (another of Dan’s many distant cousins) to inventory the existing plants and add new native plants to the landscape.  Lori is a biology student at the college and she sought out the Wildlife Center as a host and partner for this school project.   Along with Cedar Crest, we are working with the Lehigh Carbon Community College, Moravian, and Muhlenberg to establish educational partnerships associated with the Wildlife Center.  This summer we plan to establish several demonstration warm season grass plots to educate the public about the re-vegetation efforts underway on the mountain.

Another exciting aspect of the grounds around the Osprey House is the spring fed fishpond next to the house.  This pond is teeming with wildlife, from bullfrogs to water snakes and several large trout and the various pond insects on which they feed.  We even had a pair of Hooded Mergansers visit the pond several times this winter.

We are eager to inventory the residents of the pond and other areas of the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge.  Jeff Frantz has been surveying the birds of the refuge regularly since last Autumn, and a number of Center members are recording sightings, including the Bald Eagle seen by the Wanamakers on February 5.  Let us know what you see when at our new refuge.  Also, when you come by for a visit, ask us to feed the fish in the pond. The trout sometimes come up out of the water like dolphins as they strike at the fish food. Your children will love it!

We also have high school students interested in volunteering their time at the Center. This provides the students with excellent learning opportunities and gives the Center a hand in keeping our education and research materials organized and up to date.  Sarah Sidor, a freshman at Northampton High School has spent more than 40 hours at the Center since January, cataloging and reorganizing into taxonomic order our new collection of Birds of North America publications, inventorying the 2300 books in the Center’s research library, and doing various other clerical chores.  She plans to help this spring with the outdoor work and botanical inventory of the property.

All of this new activity occurs while the ongoing projects of the Center continue.  The Bake Oven Knob Area Winter Bird Survey and Feeder Watch were conducted in January and February respectively.  Eric and Karen Wolfgang are preparing for the annual Bluebird Nest Box Survey this spring and Ted Beltz is organizing the spring hawk count. Ted will probably spend some of his “count hours” on the deck of the Osprey House, utilizing the great view of north bound migrants flowing past the south side of the gap.  If the truth be known, Ted used to look down on the Osprey House from the National Park Service parking lot across the river and opine about how nice it would be to live in the Osprey House! Let us know if you want to help with any of these projects.

Instructors Dan Kunkle, Kathie Romano, and Loretta Fair are planning for this summer’s annual Young Ecologists Camp, and are quite excited about all of the new possibilities afforded as a result of the Center’s new property and buildings.  And Deb Siglin continues her Wonderful World of Wildlife reading program at the Slatington Public Library.

Finally, we have several events planned for this spring to thank those that helped make the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge a reality and to introduce the public to this wonderful community resource. Those events are described on pages 9 and 10.  We hope to see you at our new wildlife refuge.