Environmental program working to build wetlands center

By Cody White

The Environmental Science program at Ashland University is currently working to build an educational center at the preserve, according to Dawn Weber, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I’m very excited about Ashland University raising funds to support an Environmental Study Center at the Black Fork Wetlands Preserve,” Weber said. “Such a center would be used by AU students, faculty researchers, public schools in Ashland and Richland counties, and members of the community.”

The funding for the center is being pursued through fundraising with some pledges already made towards its construction, said Dr. Richard Stoffer, professor of biology and preserve manager.

“Things get flooded every so often [at the preserve] and we need a building that will not be hurt by it,” Stoffer said.

He added that the building needs to run separately from normal electricity grids and sewage systems due to its position near the wetlands.

Patricia Saunders, director of the environmental science program, said that many K-12 school groups, teacher workshops and community members often use the wetlands’ observation deck as a main station to observe and interact with the reserve’s plants and animals.

“It would be even better to have an education center nearby, where groups could use microscopes and do more in-depth studies of how wetlands work,” Saunders said.

It is for these reasons that the program is seeking funds for such a center, with solar panels to generate its electricity especially in mind, Saunders said.

The center will add to one of AU’s five environmental preserves, all of which Stoffer helps oversee.

“The [Black Fork] reserve is used for teaching and research,” Stoffer said.

University class sessions are held several times a semester and studies involving biology, organisms and ecology often take place there.

Stoffer noted one current study taking place that involves looking at invasive, or not native, species of grasses, specifically canary grass.

From the community, individuals and groups often visit to look at the ecology and water chemistry of the wetlands. Within the waterlogged and wooded reserve, visitors can also witness an untold number of organisms.

“There’s a rich diversity of all sorts of different animals and plants,” Stoffer said.

Among its several habitats, the wetlands are visited by over 100 species of birds, over 80 of which nest there, including one pair of sandwich cranes, Stoffer said.

“The preserve is a fabulous area with many different types of habitat that support a very diverse wildlife,” Saunders said. “Wetlands also help improve water quality and can be important areas for groundwater recharge, so the conservation of this acreage is good for people, too.”

Stoffer said the program members are still in the process of surveying all of the species in the wetlands, with a large number of fish and trees already surveyed.

“We’re still in the early stages of listing other species,” he said.

All of this hard work done by Stoffer and other faculty in the EVS program led them to be recognized by the Richland Soil and Water Conservation District (RCSWCD) Annual Meeting held September 2, 2010, according to an AU press release.

Stoffer and fellow Professor of Biology Dr. Soren Brauner accepted the award on behalf of the program, which was cited for its preservation efforts and its accessibility to the public.

With a recent community award and potential funding for a new building, The Black Fork Wetlands Environmental Preserve is continuing to provide scientific services to Ashland University and to the community.