Column: Partnership can foster new opportunities at Montour Preserve for those willing to get creative
One sunny yet blustery early spring day I remember hiking with my Scout troop from a public camping site along a trail toward the Montour Preserve.
A few spring flowers had attempted to push through the late-winter undergrowth, skunk cabbage did its best to break up the dull grays and dead-leaf browns, but really there was little to catch our attention until we stumbled across a small dip in the ground filled with water that was literally vibrating with life.
Vernal pools, we learned later that day from naturalist Jon Beam, are unique because compared to the cold, unforgiving environment around them, they are shallow enough to be warmed by the sun above streaming down through a canopy that has yet to gain its leaves. Vernal pools lack natural predators and they offer plenty of leaf litter for shelter and camouflage.
In other words, they are comfortable, safe and the perfect environment for fostering and inspiring young growth.
Sort of like the 640-acre Montour Preserve – a vernal pool for environmental education – a “Vernal School,” if you will?
So went the odd train of thought in my mind as we, as an association, worked behind the scenes, to pull together support for the Montour Area Recreation Commission (MARC) late this summer in order to keep it managing the preserve.
Like many, I had many formative experiences at the preserve, connecting with nature in ways that still shape me decades later. With that is an obligation to pay it forward, especially to a group that has sacrificed quite a bit to handle the day-to-day operations of the preserve over the past eight-plus years on a meager budget.
So earlier this summer when MARC announced that it was on the verge of tapping out – of filing its one-year notice to preserve owner Talen Energy that it would no longer be able to manage the preserve due to lack of finances – it was obvious that a new, creative solution needed to be pursued.
Thankfully, there are many local groups that savor both the Montour Preserve and environmental education.
More than ever, we need to connect people with nature and help them rediscover the importance of these resources. There is a certain amount of learning that comes from mud-caked outdoor exploration that you can’t get elsewhere.
Also, when it comes to dealing with a wide variety of various pollutants and other ailments facing our river and greater aquatic ecosystem, there is no better antidote than awareness.
Plus, there is a big push right now for STEM programming. Statewide, new science standards are being implemented and teachers are struggling to keep up. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) may seem like a catchphrase that is used quite often, but in terms of meaningful programming that really engages kids – or really people of all ages – our region could use quite a bit more.
So, a partnership came together fairly quickly.
Susquehanna University's Freshwater Research Institute's director, Matt Wilson, has been looking for ways to ramp up local environmental education. Two of his seniors heading up that department were interns with our association two summers ago and currently serve on our board as co-secretaries (Morgan Thomas and Danielle Tryon).
"I'm really excited by the number and diversity of partners who have stepped up to support environmental education collaboratively," said Wilson. "I am looking forward to what we are able to accomplish at the Preserve over the next year and beyond."
The Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit has been working hard to improve STEM programming across the 17-school-district (and 69 nonpublic school area) region it serves, recently kicking off a Chief Science Officer program and offering an extensive library of equipment for STEM programming. Thankfully, their Community STEM Technical Facilitator, Douglas Fessler, also sits on our board.
"The Lending Library gives our clients the opportunity to experiment with a variety of STEM equipment within their classrooms and programs throughout the community, from Strawbees, drones and robots, to 3Doodler pens and environmental science tools," said Tanya Dynda, CARES Instructional Technology Support with the CSIU. "The intent is that they make an informed decision on investing in devices that promote the success of their classrooms and program by testing driving what is available within the CSIU Lending Library."
The Columbia County Conservation District has a long history of environmental education, overseeing the region's Envirothon programming including the annual regional Middle School Envirothon competition at the Montour Preserve each May.
"As our world becomes more urbanized, less and less children have access to the outdoors and places they can go explore on their own. If kids don't get out and explore and learn about the environment and nature at a young age, they don't establish that love and concern for our natural world. People only fight to protect things that they care about, and that's why I am so passionate about teaching our youth, and adults, about the environment, natural resources, outdoor recreation, wildlife, agriculture, and especially water quality," said Abby Frey, Environmental Education and Watershed Specialist with the Columbia County Conservation District. "The Susquehanna Valley Middle School Envirothon that is held at the Montour Preserve is the perfect example of immersing students in the outdoors and utilizing outdoor education to spark something in these students and teach them about things that, many times, they've never even heard of. Many Envirothon alumni end up working in environmental fields such as at conservation districts, in forestry, the game commission, etc."
Bucknell University has a long history of programming at the preserve in various capacities, and within minutes of talking with Dr. Benjamin Hayes, he was inviting me to campus to talk with him and his colleagues about ways to collaborate on programming.
"Bucknell University has been taking students there for decades, to learn about the local geology, hydrology, aquatic and terrestrial ecology, and the design and operation of reservoirs. We take classes kayaking on the lake to learn about reservoir design and construction, wading in the stream to measure flow and discharge, and on woodland hikes to study forest ecosystems," he said. "The shale pit and underlying limestone aquifers are of great interest to our geology students. Bucknell is delighted to learn about the Vernal School partnership and looking forward to working with the Riverkeeper and MARC to connect students and our conservation partners to the preserve."
The PA Master Naturalist program has been offering a regional training at the preserve under Jon Beam's tutelage for quite some time ... I had the pleasure of taking the course a couple of springs ago. Volunteers from this training have been increasingly involved in helping provide programs at the preserve over the past couple years.
And the list goes on ... check out additional partners here.
Of course, it all wouldn't be possible without the support of the 1994 Charles B. Degenstein Foundation, which has committed $300,000 to kickstart this initiative. We are thankful for their faith in this partnership and are committed to making sure it will be successful, not only for the immediate future, but sustainably for the long-haul until the more permanent solution for the preserve is finalized.
"The MSRKA is very happy to play a key role in this partnership, which will not only help keep an important natural area to the public but expand environmental and STEM programming in our community," said association Board president Marissa Crames. "The educational opportunities are endless and exciting."
Not only will this Vernal School initiative allow us to support programs that have a longstanding history at the preserve, such as the maple sugaring demonstration, but also add plenty of new, outside the box ideas. Things from nature journaling to incorporating technology into environmental work. Perhaps offering family movie experiences, book readings or reviews, a "night at the museum" experience, art/music opportunities, etc. Maybe video environmental education programming or nature live streams. We'd love to hear your ideas and suggestions via this survey.
However, first, there is quite a bit of work to be done yet. Planning and prep. Upgrades and improvements. There are still quite a bit in deferred projects at the preserve that MARC had to push off due to previous financial shortfalls that will need additional creative solutions.
Of course ... isn't that really what's behind the STEM acronym? The science, technology, engineering and math are really just tools that encourage students to be more creative problem solvers …
How would you like to help us creatively solve those deferred projects? To creatively add new programs and bridge the gap to a creative new future for the preserve and environmental education as a whole?
We will be sharing updates each step of the way for this project, transparently, on our website. And we are looking into adding someone to our team specifically to help with this project. More on that will be coming soon, also at this link.
Would you like to donate specifically to the Montour Preserve effort? You can donate directly to MARC via their Community Giving Foundation platform.
Or, you can donate to needs related to environmental education at the preserve via our Vernal School Donorbox link
And lastly, we encourage everyone to take a few moments to fill out the online survey form to open an open line of communication with the public about the preserve, what you enjoy about it, what you'd like to see program-wise, what your favorite memories have been there, etc. Just click the button below and fill out the Google form.
You can contact me directly about the Vernal School Environmental Education Partnership or anything Riverkeeper-related to me (John Zaktansky) at firstname.lastname@example.org or 570-768-6300
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.