Environmental Education Expo draws more than 1,000 people to Montour Preserve as partnership gears up for busy slate of programs
Riverkeeper's Note: This is one of two overview stories from the Feb. 10 Environmental Education Expo. You can check out the other one with additional voices and perspectives here.
While Rodney Stahl, of Mifflinburg, his wife and two kids – ages nine and five – had never been to the Montour Preserve before the Environmental Education Expo held on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024, he admits they will definitely be back.
“My family didn’t realize the facilities and outdoor options the Montour Preserve offers until we came for the expo, and we are excited to get back soon and check out more, including the hiking trails,” he said. “When you consider how many of our small towns have had to close things like their bowling alleys and town pools, it’s very important to have constructive activities. If they’re entertaining while also educational, that’s a win-win.”
That was the goal behind the Environmental Education Expo, hosted by the Vernal School Environmental Education Partnership – a coalition of local associations, agencies and groups committed to revitalizing programs and resources at the Montour Preserve to better support the efforts of the Montour Area Recreation Commission, which has managed the 640-acre nature preserve since 2015.
The event brought in more than 1,000 people to the venue and is being used as a springboard to a growing list of programs in the coming weeks, months and remainder of 2024 – and beyond.
“It was very exciting to see how much interest has been reignited in the Nature Preserve! We are so lucky to have this resource in our community and the collective efforts of all that were at the expo showed how much everyone believes that,” said Francesca Neville, of Montgomery. “My kids are looking forward to attending classes and learning at the Montour Preserve since this has been one of our favorite places to go and be in nature since we moved to the area.
“Since we homeschool, we like to get out in nature and experience a more ‘hands-on’ approach to learning. Having people from the community to guide us through will only enrich their experiences and give them a deeper understanding about things that they already love.”
Five-year-old Forrest Wolfe, of Mifflinburg, loves visiting local parks with his family to search for wildlife – especially salamanders and frogs, according to his mother, Amanda.
At the expo, Forrest admitted that he “like everything, but my favorite part was learning about the maple sugar.”
Amanda added that she and her husband strongly believe in conservation, especially in their local environment.
“We are teaching our boys to love, protect and respect nature. We try to support as many local environmental organizations as possible,” she said. “We love attending local events to expose our children and ourselves to new information and experiences. It’s important that everyone learn as much as possible about where they live and in turn learn to respect it.”
Along those lines, she said as a parent, she appreciated how diverse the pool of learning opportunities was at the expo.
“I enjoyed learning about all the different local organizations and upcoming events that we can participate in,” she said. “The exhibits were all thoughtful in their contents and did a great job catering the information to a variety of ages.”
Programming was set up on a table-by-table and group-by-group basis, with each offering a different hands-on interactive activity for families to engage in. These included learning about and trying virtual reality equipment, drones, STEM-related environmental sensors, underwater cameras, fly-tying, outdoor adventure opportunities, gardening, bird watching, fossils, hellbender conservation, fish research from our local river, ways to identify and report common water pollution, engaging with live creatures via Clyde Peeling Reptiland and Susquehanna University’s Freshwater Research Institute, age-appropriate mapping exercises on the preserve’s new computer lab and experience with Project WET, as well as trying out new upgrades at the facility.
“The expo was a great family event, introducing a variety of ways to learn about and engage with nature. I also found it valuable as an environmental educator to see up and coming tools and products in action, and speak with old acquaintances along with some new ones across a larger region than my usual,” said Emily Shosh, of Coudersport, the new Regional Director for the Northern Tier for the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association. “The expo wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill outreach event, it was an extremely engaging opportunity for all ages.”
Partners represented at the expo included the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association and its Vernal School Partnership effort, the Montour Area Recreation Commission, Columbia-Montour Visitor Bureau, Columbia-Montour Chamber of Commerce, Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, Susquehanna University Freshwater Research Institute, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bloomsburg Children’s Museum, Get Lost Photography, Wild Trout Man, Montour County 4-H, Seven Mountains Audubon, PA Master Naturalists, Central PA Rock and Mineral Club, Lycoming College’s Clean Water Institute, Susquehanna STEM to the Skies, PA Fish and Boat Commission, PA Game Commission, Susquehanna Council BSA, Clyde Peeling Reptiland, United States Geological Society (USGS), PaperPie Books, Northcentral PA Conservancy, Columbia County Conservation District, PA Master Gardeners, Eastern PA Coalition of Abandoned Mine Reclamation, Roambler and the PA Association of Environmental Educators.
“The Montour Area Recreation Commission is delighted to see the enthusiasm for environmental programming at the Montour Preserve and sincerely appreciates the efforts of the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, the Vernal School, and the many partners who participated in the Environmental Education Expo,” said Montour Area Recreation Commission Executive Director Bob Stoudt. “The Expo was one of the most well-attended events during MARC’s more than eight years at the Montour Preserve and is hoped to be among the first of many exciting events to come.”
Marissa Crames, Program Supervisor of the Vernal School partnership, agreed.
“The amount of people who attended the expo exceeded expectations. It was an astonishing show of support for the Vernal School Partnership and Montour Preserve. Adults shared stories of school field trips, family picnics and activities at the preserve when they were younger,” she said.
“The success of the expo was critical. The numbers in attendance prove the need for the Vernal School Partnership. Parents wish for their children to have the same memories of Montour Preserve that they have. The Vernal School is hoping to help accomplish this by providing these educational experiences and opportunities.”
As Chris Berleth, of the Columbia-Montour Chamber of Commerce, experienced the ongoing waves of people excitedly bringing their families into the Montour Preserve’s Educational Center for the day’s programming, he pointed out that the community’s response was a true litmus test of why we should invest in more of this sort of programming and especially the Montour Preserve.
"Those who were at the Montour Preserve today experienced a true ‘Field of Dreams’ moment – it felt like something right out of a movie – ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Families rallied from far and wide to enjoy the Montour Preserve – from Williamsport to Selinsgrove, West Milton to Bloomsburg. The line to get in was out the door from the moment those doors opened,” he said. “Today is evidence that families (especially) are thirsty for events and programs about outdoor education."
Learn more about the Vernal School partnership and the growing list of programs for 2024 at www.VernalSchool.org
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.