Cover Story

To Conserve and Protect

In 2022, Ursinus College became the first liberal arts institution in the world to sign the international Okanagan Charter, signifying a holistic commitment to the well-being of people, places, and planet. Partnerships such as the one that has developed between the environmental studies department and the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy is just one example of this commitment in action. (Pictured: Jessie Kemper ’12 and Beth Myers ’17 with Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy Executive Director Ryan Beltz)

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Just over a half mile from campus—closer yet on foot or bike if you take the shortcut beyond Wilkes Field—lies the Perkiomen Creek. Its watershed encompasses 362 square miles, 55 municipalities, and more than 231,000 acres across four counties: Berks, Bucks, Montgomery, and Lehigh. This tributary of the Schuylkill River flows for 37.7 miles (18 of them navigable) and was recently named an official Pennsylvania State Water Trail, the 29th in the commonwealth. Since 1964, the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy (PWC) has worked to protect the land and water assets of the Perkiomen Creek Watershed through environmental education, conservation, and community outreach.

In 2001, as the nonprofit approached its 40th anniversary, the environmental studies department at Ursinus was officially formed, with the goal of preparing students to be environmental stewards across the globe. With such a rich and diverse area in need of protection right in our backyard, students and alumni alike found they would not necessarily have to go far in order make an impact.

A lasting relationship between the college and the conservancy began to take root, and at its core were respect, admiration, collaboration, and reciprocity. Over the years, Ursinus faculty have served on PWC’s board of directors (Associate Professor Emerita of English Rebecca Jaroff ’81 is currently serving a third term), shared knowledge as speakers at PWC events, and taken their students on PWC site visits to learn about project design, and implementation strategies and techniques—all the while getting a firsthand lesson about the social dimensions of community involvement that lead to successful stewardship efforts.

Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies Patrick Hurley is co-director of the Robert and Shurley Knaefler Whittaker Environmental Research Station, which is home to Ursinus’s food forest that was begun in 2019 as part of the college’s sesquicentennial celebration. As part of this role—along with his involvement with reforestation efforts at Hunsberger Woods—Hurley works closely with the conservancy’s staff, some of whom were once his students.

“PWC has been a reliable and important partner for reinforcing learning in the curriculum, while challenging students to build on their academic knowledge, practical skills, and comfort with interpersonal communication. They frequently expand on student knowledge by giving our students exposure to both familiar and new aspects of environmental stewardship, education, and outreach,” he said.

Hurley is one of five Ursinus faculty who have received PWC’s Excellence in Teaching Award. Other honorees are Professor Emeritus of Environmental Studies Rich Wallace (2005), Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Leah Joseph (2008), Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Tristan Ashcroft (2018), and Associate Professor of Biology Denise Finney (2022).

Students are equally involved with the conservancy, assisting with events such as tree plantings and the annual stream clean-up. On the flip side, the conservancy provides expertise on campus projects such as the recent installation of a rain garden.

PWC volunteer student candid PWC volunteer student candid

Then there are the interns.

College records show that PWC has hosted at least one Ursinus intern every year since the 2010-11 academic year (this summer they had four). It’s no doubt an impressive streak, but students were involved with the conservancy long before the records reflect. Director of Sustainability Kate Keppen ’05 recalls formative interactions planting trees along a park stream with PWC in her 2004 capstone class, which transitioned into research opportunities her senior year, then graduate school, and then “a whole other career in stream protection before coming back to Ursinus.”

“It’s a great local partnership. The quality of the students is remarkable,” said Ryan Beltz, who has been executive director at the conservancy since 2016. “It’s almost like a farm system for us in terms of bringing interns on board who transition to employees. I always joke with people in the [environmental studies] department that if I could hire more, I would.”

One of the early interns was Jessie Kemper ’12.

Kemper, who hails from an Ursinus family (parents Janet Brown and Keith Kemper graduated in 1979 and raised their family—which includes Jessie’s twin sister, Ali, also an Ursinus graduate, and younger sister, Claire—in nearby Royersford), attended camp at PWC as a child, and then completed an internship there before her senior year. After graduation she held positions that explored different sides of conservation—working for the National Park Service, on an organic farm, at a nuclear power plant (as an environmental intern), and with the Brandywine Zoo—before finding her way back to PWC. She started as the conservation coordinator and now, as she approaches her ninth year, she is director of conservation.

One thing Kemper likes about the conservancy is the variety that each day brings. “Everything is always changing seasonally, so this time of year, it’s a little bit of office work and a lot of sweaty fieldwork outside,” said Kemper, who had just performed weeding and invasive-species maintenance with volunteers at a rain garden in Lansdale and was preparing to conduct a rain-barrel workshop for residents in Upper Providence.

“The goal is to connect people to the environment, get people out and about enjoying our natural spaces,” said Kemper. “Hopefully that gives them an emotional connection to the environment, which is the big thing to getting people to care about it and help conserve it.”

When Kemper first started working at PWC, she appreciated the availability of her Ursinus professors and their willingness to offer advice. “Now, I am able to give back to professors so we can collaborate on projects and I can help out with students. Interacting with professors in a professional setting and having them ask us to share our expertise in the field is surreal, but good.”

Another Ursinus graduate who is also on the receiving end of those requests now is Kemper’s first intern, Beth Myers ’17. The two had very similar trajectories, but never crossed paths until Myers arrived at PWC. Both attended Spring-Ford Area High School, both majored in environmental studies and minored in sociology, and both ultimately turned PWC internships into full-time careers.

Jeff Cocci '23 (left) and Beth Myers '17 pose in front of the Philadelphia skyline during the ann... Jeff Cocci ’23 (left) and Beth Myers ’17 pose in front of the Philadelphia skyline during the annual Perki-Bay Expedition, which is a five-day canoe trip PWC does with its youth Conservation Corps.

As a rising junior, Myers applied for the internship on the recommendation of Hurley, who was her adviser. “I loved it, and they couldn’t get me away from them after that. I kept volunteering,” said Myers with a laugh. Her passion, dedication, and skills were rewarded with an offer of employment as a conservationist at the start of her senior year.

With her future figured out, so to speak, Myers focused her senior year on Hunsberger Woods. “I was pretty involved with starting the stewardship at Hunsberger Woods with the riparian buffer plantings and some of the maintenance projects” as part of a “Land” capstone course, said Myers.

A self-described “plant person,” Myers loves “all things that eat plants: bugs, butterflies, small species.” In her new role as director of ecology, she will help launch a butterfly learning program at PWC’s native plant propagation greenhouse located at Jacob Reiff Park in Harleysville. “We want to demonstrate the critical role that native plants have in the lifecycle of our local butterflies and pollinators. They need specific host plants, so habitat protection is so important for not only our native lands, but also all of our pollinators that rely on them.”

She collaborates frequently with classmate Angela Upright ’17, who—as the assistant director of UCARE—helps coordinate volunteers for the first-year day of service. (This year, members of the class of 2027 volunteered with PWC to help remove an invasive species, Japanese knotweed, from the 14-acre Arcola Island.)

“We love working with Ursinus. I feel like it’s constant that we have an intern or some sort of group or a class that we’re working with from Ursinus,” said Myers. “Ursinus students are always very energetic and willing to learn and get engaged in projects. We get so excited when they turn to the ‘green side,’ thinking more about environmental things in their personal life or continuing on professionally.”

One of those students was Jeff Cocci ’23, who worked with Myers during his first-year day of service. “We met at the food forest, and we got along amazingly. He volunteered a bunch, we chatted throughout his whole four years at Ursinus, and then he started working here,” said Myers.

From Cocci’s perspective, seeing dedicated alumni return to the college to work on a project was proof that the project mattered. “Getting involved with the food forest my freshman year really put me on a good path and outlined a lot of what I did with the environmental studies department for the rest of my time at Ursinus.”

Like Kemper and Myers, Cocci progressed from PWC volunteer to intern to employee when he was hired this past summer to work on education and camp initiatives. Now as conservation coordinator, a position he’ll hold through November, Cocci will help develop new education initiatives and assist with conservation projects.

“It’s easy to see the similarities between the philosophies of the conservancy and Ursinus’s curriculum,” said Cocci. “The first CIE question is, ‘What should matter to me?’ and I think PWC provides answers: protecting the waterways, protecting the wildlife, engaging with the community that live around the Perkiomen. As if to say, ‘Here’s something that could matter to you.’ To me, it does. To Beth, Jessie, Ryan, and everyone at PWC, it does.”

Jeff Cocci '23 (left) and Lexi Fowler '23 (center) install core logs with Ryan Beltz as part of t... Jeff Cocci ’23 (left) and Lexi Fowler ’23 (center) install core logs with Ryan Beltz as part of the Arcola Island project.

Asking the trio to reflect on meaningful classes that helped shape and inform the work they’re doing now at PWC resulted in a list too lengthy to detail in full. In “Conservation Biology” with Professor of Biology Cory Straub, Kemper benefited from grant-writing expertise she still calls on today, and for her senior seminar in “Land Ethics,” she created what she calls the perfect primer: a stewardship plan for Hunsberger Woods. “We planted trees in that park in 2012, and I’m planting more trees this year, so it’s a full-circle moment, which is really cool.”

Myers credits Hurley with inspiring her “native-plant obsession” in his “Ecological Change” course, and she values a course that Wallace taught that focused on critical-thinking and problem-solving for environmental professionals. “It was really helpful to learn how to tactfully speak with other parties that might not totally be on board with the type of projects that we want to do in a park.”

For Cocci—who was nearly a biology major but chose environmental studies after Hurley and Wallace helped him realize all he could do with a degree in the field—it was instead certain moments that he found impactful.

“I was a freshman. It was my fall semester. Everything was new and shiny, and I was eager to learn as much as I possibly could. Rich Wallace had a mindset of, when you look at all of the environmental issues going on—with climate change, with the wildfires that we’ve been seeing increased—things are pretty bad. But he always stressed that we should never lose hope; that it’s worth fighting for.”

“He would also often talk about how he disliked in academia that there was this sense that you had to separate passion from the empirical data … I’ll never forget him saying that. You read papers about the extinction of the vaquita, this small dolphin in the Gulf of California; there’s maybe a dozen of them left. The scientific papers are completely dry, completely flat, it’s just the numbers. And it’s dispassionate. But when you think about an animal going extinct, what’s dispassionate about that? He always stressed to us to be passionate about what we were doing in trying to save the world, as he would call it. Hearing that as a freshman really made me think, ‘This is what I ought to be doing.’”

Passion for the planet—and Ursinus—is clearly what drives Kemper and Myers as well. They have been founding members of the Ursinus Food Forest Alumni Advisory Board since 2019 and “highly supportive of the two tree plantings we’ve completed at the site,” said Hurley. “They have participated in courses where their insights shaped project planning, worked with students in the class to undertake quality control on volunteer planting events, and engaged the same students from the ‘Food Forest’ capstone in their projects. The result is a sustained and expanded learning experience for all involved.”

“PWC has long been a highly regarded organization, but its activities and stewardship footprint have both grown in so many ways since I first arrived at Ursinus in 2008,” said Hurley. “It’s been exciting to see how former and current Ursinus students have contributed to this growth and the success of these endeavors.”

to conserve and protect

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