As told by Executive Director Dan Kunkle
“We believe in the power of the citizen activist. We believe in the wisdom of the citizen scientist. We believe that knowledge and understanding build compassion. We believe concerned people working together can make a difference.” —LGNC Mission
The Lehigh Gap Nature Center originally began back in 1986 as way to educate the area about the importance of environmental conservation. It was founded by Donald Heintzelman as the Wildlife Information Center and operated for the first 10 years right out of his home. It moved to a storefront in Slatington in 1996 where it began running informational programs.
In 2002, the organization re-branded itself as the Lehigh Gap Nature Center and moved to its current 750-acre location, a transition Executive Director Dan Kunkle calls a “very transformative event” for their mission. They were able to expand upon their conservation and research work to have a much greater impact. That year, they also began to became involved in the super fund process.
“Super fund” is a nickname for a U.S. federal law administered by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “This whole Palmerton area (including LGNC property) was designated a super fund site in 1983,” explained Kunkle. “Because of the toxic metals in the soil; it got that way due to air pollution from the zinc factory in Palmerton, which killed all the vegetation. The topsoil eroded—there was a forest, but all of it washed away and all that was left was just bare dirt. Not even soil that things could grow in; there was nothing organic to it.”
The LGNC and USEPA joined up with the responsible party (the zinc company had since gone bankrupt—Viacom International, specifically CBS Television, is now responsible) to re-vegetate the mountain.
“We all work together very closely and they have been wonderful partners,” said Kunkle. “It’s a cooperative effort to do this conservation work, but it works. We brought it back; it’s green again. We now have a great ecosystem of grassland.” (See before and after photos.)
Kunkle got his start by becoming involved in a particular issue, and then became a board member in 1990. With a teaching background—he spent 28 years teaching biological science at Freedom High School in Bethlehem—he was all too willing and able to bring more of an education aspect into the mix. He became President in 1998 and stopped teaching to devote his full time and attention to the LGNC in 2004.
In 2010, they built what was affectionately nicknamed and is now known as the Osprey House, which sits center stage in their property, in a location that is vital in terms of preserving nature.
“We’re trying to preserve the Kittatinny Ridge, which is an important source of water. Everything to the south depends on it,” said Kunkle. “If you’ve ever had a bottle of Nestle Deer Park water, that comes from this ridge. It’s also the last large intact forest from this point south in PA. Large blocks of forest like that are important to some species in this area. It’s also a great recreational spot; the Appalachian Trail runs on top of the ridge.”
Perhaps the most important part of LGNC’s educational programming is spreading awareness about the kind of work they need to support, like wildlife research and advocacy for certain laws. Kunkle said a huge component of what they do is known as “citizen science” research.
“A lot of research requires technical equipment, which we don’t have. But we can invite university students down here to collect some soil and take it back to their college lab to test for levels of zinc. A lot of data that we need to test can be collected by amateurs or interns,” explained Kunkle. “Is the bird life changing in this area? What about butterflies and other insects? Why? By getting people involved, we’re able to do much more research than we’ve ever been able to before.”
4-5,000 students from preschool all the way to graduate levels come to the LGNC each year to attend programs, camps, and more. The LGNC has a full calendar of events, almost all of which are free to attend.
“All our events are family-friendly,” said Kunkle. “And while it may not sound wise, for an organization still trying to make its way, to fund them ourselves, we live in an area where people are not all that well-off and we don’t want to exclude people because they can’t afford to pay. Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy nature.”
Among their events, they host a speaker series now in its third successful year. Anywhere from 25 to 50 people show up for those, according to Kunkle. Their other events draw an unpredictable number. “We might get three people for a bird walk or we might get 100,” he laughed.
Their other very popular events are their annual art and photography shows, both of which have now been going for two years each. The photography show is in late March, while the art show is typically hosted in July.
“The photography show really took off because of how easy it is to be a ‘photographer’ these days,” explained Kunkle. “It doesn’t cost you anything and most people have cameras right on their phones.” The photo show gets upwards of 100 submissions, while the art show barely reaches 50.
And, of course, outside of official events, the property is open to the public every day dawn to dusk to walk, hike, or bike the trails. You may even spot some native wildlife. According to Kunkle, it’s not uncommon to spot deer, bears, beavers, otters, and other small fuzzy creatures around the property. (However, most are nocturnal and it’s far more likely that you’ll just see birds and bees instead.)
The most important thing Kunkle says people should keep in mind is that the LGNC is 100% volunteer-driven.
“We have a Board of Directors with 12 members, two actual staffers, myself included, and a network of about 150 volunteers,” said Kunkle. “But we always need more! People tend to complain if they stop by and we’re closed, but they should realize that we’re probably closed because I don’t have a volunteer to sit at the desk downstairs. We’re not a county park; we’re not supported by the government. We’re supported by our members and their generous donations.”
Volunteers are in charge of running smaller committees, like the Garden Group, which takes care of the property’s plants and encourages local residents to change the way they take care of their lawn and plants.
“We try to get people to invest in native plants,” said Kunkle. “And to also reconsider how they grow their lawn. Turf grass is the largest crop in the country. We have more lawn than corn and it’s not a great habitat. In fact, most of it is toxic from people over-fertilizing. You know, 96% of birds feed bugs to their babies, not seed. If our grass kills the bugs, we’re hurting our bird population. So we should be supporting our wildlife. Around here, we think beauty is nature that’s working.”
The Conservation Landscaping Initiative also helps with that, but on a grander scale. They reach out to local colleges, churches, and organizations with big influence in the area, such as Martin Guitar to plant little gardens full of native plants on their land.
The LGNC has even received awards for their work; 10, in fact, in just the last five years. With those stats, there’s no denying that their presence is important to the community.
“I work very hard here, but I enjoy it very much. I’m having a great time,” said Kunkle. “I believe that we ought to leave the world a better place than we found it. Each generation should do that, but it hasn’t happened so much in the past. So this work is very important.”
To find out how you can become a member or volunteer for the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, call 610-760-8889 or attend their Volunteer Recognition Day on June 28 to meet fellow volunteers and ask questions. For more information on the LGNC, visit lgnc.org.