5 Years Ago and Back to the Future

Five Years Ago and Back to the Future:

How the Lehigh Gap Restoration Project Turned Around A Stalled Superfund Initiative

| By Robert E. Hoopes |

The following article is from Spring 2007 issue of Wildlife Activist.

It is hard to believe that five years have passed since we developed a plan to turn a federal Superfund site into a public nature park at Lehigh Gap. Looking back, we are awed by the progress made in these five years. Looking ahead we are inspired by the opportunities before us. Because our membership has increased by more than 200 members since the start of the project, it is a good time to share how we got here today and where we are going.

In early January 2002 Board member Grant White came up with the idea for establishing a presence in the Lehigh Gap. Since we had been actively searching for a suitable parcel of land to purchase and establish an environmental learning and research center, the Board readily accepted Grant’s idea. If, and it was a big if at the time, we could secure the land in the Lehigh Gap, we envisioned a project unfolding in three overlapping phases: acquire the land; re-vegetate the damaged landscape; and establish a public park and nature center.

We knew the idea was a long shot for a small group with no paid staff and a $15,000 annual operating budget. We would need to raise nearly $1 million to acquire the land. Re-vegetating the barren mountain, contaminated for years by heavy metals from the zinc smelting, was another daunting challenge. We actually didn’t realize how long the odds were against our plan, when we decided to go for it.

Our first action, and it turned out to be a brilliant suggestion by Grant White, was to enlist the support of Bill Mineo, the Stewardship and Trail Manager for the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor in February 2002. The D&L Corridor is a 165-mile trail under development, running from Wilkes Barre, PA south to Bristol, PA just north of Philadelphia. Grant knew that the D&L Trail would run through the Lehigh Gap and figured correctly that we could partner with the D&L planners. Mineo became an instant supporter of our plan both in his official capacity and personally as well. This is a partnership that continues today and much of our success is the result of Bill’s technical expertise and the support of the D&L Corridor staff.

Bill Mineo

Bill Mineo

Mineo’s support gave us confidence to move forward with the project. We approached the private landowners controlling the 750+ acres that we wanted to secure for the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge. On our first visit to the home of Marcia and John Hodson, an Osprey was circling over the house and the river – a good omen. The Prairie Warbler incessantly singing its upward trill on the hill above the house was a second good omen. The Hodson’s were looking to sell their property and retire to Florida. Their home would later become the current headquarters of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, appropriately named the “Osprey House.” We were able to secure agreements of sale on the three properties we were seeking by the end of 2002.

Dan Kunkle, with Bill Mineo whispering in his ear, was a master at conjuring up bridge loans, private donations, personal loans, and corporate grants to cobble together the funds needed to close on the land deals and buy time to secure permanent funding for the properties. We were now land barons, in control of 756 acres of diversified habitat, half of which was heavily contaminated with lead, cadmium, zinc and other heavy metals. But we were in business to stay.

In December 2002 we moved our headquarters from Main Street in Slatington to the Osprey House. This two-day move was preceded by a heavy snowstorm on Thursday and near single digit temperatures starting out on both moving days. Undaunted by the weather, a faithful band of members worked together to move all of the office furniture, educational and display materials and our growing research library. That Saturday when we finished the move, our late president and lost friend, Ken Medd, cooked up one of his special lunches for the team. We broke bread together and celebrated what would surely be the beginning of an absolutely remarkable accomplishment when viewed from a historical perspective. (Editor’s note: the author of this article orchestrated this move, which came off perfectly, and he has been an unseen advisor and supporter throughout the project, especially during the acquisition phase.)

In 2003, we successfully secured the permanent funding to close on the three land deals. A $250,000 grant from the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) was the cornerstone to leveraging other funds. In addition to the needed funding, Dan also stumbled into another valuable partnership. Seeking financial help from Horsehead Industries, at that time the owner of the legacy zinc smelting operation in Palmerton, PA, Dan was directed up the corporate chain to Viacom International. Viacom, through a series of mergers and acquisitions over the years, bore responsibility along with Horsehead for the Superfund clean-up work.

Viacom vice-president Jeff Groy politely listened to Dan’s pitch, and then noted that it sounded like a fine project, but asked why Viacom should help the Wildlife Center. Dan pointed out that we could help re-vegetate the mountain, which would be great public relations for them. Unknown to us at the time, Viacom was working with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to find a way to revegetate the mountain we just bought. Viacom, and Groy saw an opportunity to work with a partner whose goals aligned with Viacom’s interests. From that moment on, Viacom (now CBS Operations) has been an outstanding partner in the Lehigh Gap Restoration Project, proving to be an excellent corporate citizen.

As the story began to spread about our plan and our success at securing the land, important people started coming to see first hand what was going on in the Lehigh Gap. One such visitor was federal Congressman Paul Kanjorski (D-PA). When he visited the Osprey House in March of 2003 and listened to Dan explain the project, the Congressman was amazed that a small, volunteer-run organization such as ours could successfully tackle such a daunting project and convert of federal superfund site into a public park.

John Dickerson

John Dickerson

That spring we began working with Viacom’s consultants, Frank and West Environmental Engineering, on a re-vegetation plan. John Dickerson, a plant scientist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), provided consulting support. Dickerson spent most of his career working on re-vegetating abandoned mine sites, shale pits, and other heavily damaged areas with these native grasses. He strongly supported the method we proposed. John became our key advisor (on a volunteer basis) on the species, mix, planting rates, planting methods, and management of the warm season grasses. Frank and West’s Chris West supervised the planting of 56 one-acre test plots beginning in May 2003. The planting continued through July. Thanks to a wet summer, followed by a warm, dry fall, the grasses germinated, became well established, and thrived. Frank and West had taken our carefully crafted theory and put it into practice on the mountain.

While the test plots were being planted with tractor and spreader, Mineo with his colleague Sherry Acevedo from D&L, and a youth group from the Lehigh County Juvenile Probation Office hand-seeded steep slope areas inaccessible to the tractor. These seeds germinated and grew as well, suggesting that we could seed the steep slopes from the air. An aerial test in 2004 with a crop duster confirmed that this method would work, enabling us to establish grasses on the steep upper slopes of the mountain as well as the lower slopes.

We were eager to go to full scale aerial planting in 2005 but the bureaucratic wheels turn slowly. Concerns about some methodology in a risk assessment performed for CBS cause the assessment to be re-done, causing us to miss the planting window for 2005. Serendipitous for us, that summer was long, hot and dry…not a good summer for establishing new plantings of prairie grass. The original test plots however, with two-year root systems, were virtually unaffected by the dry growing conditions. In fact, many of the original football field sized test plots had grown together covering wide sections of the lower slopes. So we watched the developing grassland turning into a functioning ecosystem and waited for 2006.

Crop duster 3

Crop duster

In late March 2006, two crop dusters droned as they took off from Slatington Airport and flew over the Osprey House on their way to the re-vegetation zone. For two weeks the crop dusters came and went, spreading tons of prairie grass seed, fertilizer and lime on the mountain. Additional tractor planting on the lower slopes followed. By July all of the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge’s degraded areas were planted, as well as additional Superfund areas off of the refuge.

In May 2006, the U.S. Department of Interior presented the Wildlife Center and the D&L National Heritage Corridor the agency’s Cooperative Conservation Partnership Award. This was one of 13 such awards in 2006 by the Department of Interior. At the award ceremony, Joe DiBello of the National Park Service said that the partnership and the accomplishments of our project were “being held up as a national example.”

In parallel to the re-vegetation efforts out on the mountainside, Bill Mineo was leading the Board of Directors through a detailed planning process to develop a Master Site Plan needed to create the future. Careful use of the land for public recreation, development of trails and visitor points of interest, educational facilities and funding sources to support the initiatives were all part of the process. This planning effort shaped the Board’s vision of the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge’s future. Included in that vision is a unique environmental education concept grounded in developing curriculum with local educators instead of for them. This will provide local students educational opportunities using the Center’s facilities for classroom learning and the refuge as an outdoor learning laboratory. On the planning horizon to support this initiative are infrastructure improvements, expanded programming, and a new building to house the education center for which we will need to raise at least $3 million.

To reflect the promise and vision of our organization, the Board of Directors approved registering a new name, and we are now doing business as the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. Our home continues to be the Osprey House, located on the grounds of the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge. If you have not been out to the refuge lately, it is almost too late to catch a glimpse of what was…because the future is happening. The grasses will dominate the mountainside this summer. Native plant garden adorn the slopes around the Osprey House pond. Our capital campaign for raising the funds needed for the new education center is advancing through the planning stages. Before long, the Osprey House will be transformed into a state of the art learning center complete with a visitor center, classroom space, research laboratory, and of course our expanding research library.

Five years ago when Dan Kunkle closed the land deal with one of the original landowners, the seller told Dan his thoughts when first approached by Dan about selling the land. He thought Dan a very nice guy, with an interesting story about how we wanted to use the land. He also thought we did not have a chance of making it happen. But as Bill Mineo said in a ceremony last year on Earth Day, “We needed someone naïve enough to believe they could accomplish all this in order to make it happen.”

Kanjo copy

L to R: Representative Keith McCall, Bill Mineo, Congressman Kanjorski, Dan Kunkle

Five years later we are still at it…pushing the envelope, aiming high, making a difference. We could walk away today and our legacy of saving and re-vegetating the mountain would be secure. But we have more than 200 new members and most of our original members cheering us on. We have a community excited about the new recreational and education center in their midst. And we have plans for the next five years. The next time Congressman Kanjorski visits, we believe he will be even more amazed at what we have accomplished. We hope to see you on the refuge!