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2016 Green Awards

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Carol Kuniholm  remembers Exton Park long before it was transformed into a public space. She’d drive past and see the glint of a pond in the shadows of the Exton Square Mall, a habitat where birding flourished.

Today, as president of Friends of Exton Park, a nonprofit group she helped start in 2011, Kuniholm sees a natural space balanced with soccer fields, a trailhead for the Chester Valley Trail, paved parking, restrooms, and a picnic grove. The park hasn’t been without controversy, but a partnership with
West Whiteland Township and Chester County has helped limit concerns. 

The township once had plans to convert the Exton Park into full active use. That would’ve negatively impacted the wet-meadow habitat, a home to great blue herons, beavers and other wildlife that also serves as a stopover for migrant waterfowl and shorebirds. The county manages the south and north sections, which offer restrooms, playground and picnic facilities, active farmland, woods, and access to the Chester Valley Trail.

The 727-acre property had been farmed for most of the township’s 250 years. The Church Farm School gradually bought up the remaining agricultural land, reselling much of it in 1994 to the township and the county to create an endowment for the school.

With the Friends of Exton Park’s involvement and a $33,000 matching grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the township has begun reconfiguring its original active-use plan with “what’s really needed now,” says Kuniholm. The new plan, she adds, is “way more responsive” to the environmental treasures there. 

Friends of Exton Park’s 50 members have worked to rid the grounds of invasive growth. One winter, the group tagged native trees to identify what should be cleared. “We started to get to know those in the township who make decisions and inform them of what’s at stake,” says Kuniholm, who lives in Lionville.

Paving remains a concern. The area is all headwater—a mix of streams and springs that flow together to form West Valley Creek—and portions are prone to flooding. “We’re there every week for bird walks and can see where the water flows,” Kuniholm says. “All the hardscaping would’ve made it much worse.” 

So it was encouraging that the township didn’t put in accompanying hardscape when it installed a pair of multipurpose athletic fields two years ago. “The park plays a central role in a lot of lives,” says Pam Gural-Bear, West Whiteland’s assistant township manager. “It’s why we’re doing an entire new visioning process focused on environmental aspects and open space, balanced with the needs of the entire community.”

The Friends’ chief assets are its access to volunteers, its insight into what should be done, and its commitment to follow-up. “We have manpower,” says Kuniholm. “We put in 200 hours in 2015.”

Friends board member Mike Hartshorne—who works at Princeton Hydro in Exton—organized a donation of wetland shrubs. Other board members have conducted weekly and monthly walks. For the international “Big Sit!” every October, local birders form an 18-foot circle for 24 hours to record what they see from a viewing platform in Exton Park. 

In the past 30 years, over 190 species have been observed in and around the pond, adjacent wetlands and upland woods—among them, endangered and threatened species like osprey, Northern harrier, black-crowned night heron, willow flycatcher and more. For some species, Exton Park is the only possible breeding ground in Chester County, even though it’s nestled in an intensely developed area. 

“There are many partnerships that care about the park and its history,” says Gural-Bear. “They want to preserve it.”

Volunteers from Friends of Exton Park, Weston Solutions and the Church Farm School plant native species along the berm by the Exton Park Pond.

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education has been connecting Philadelphia-area residents with nature since 1965, through programs that range from a nature-based preschool to its Toad Detour, where hundreds of volunteers shepherd the amphibians across a busy road each spring. The center is led by Mike Weilbacher, known for his “Green Light” column in the Main Line Times and regular appearances on WXPN.

During the spring breeding season, American toads migrate from the center’s forests to the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, crossing bustling Port Royal Avenue to get there. With permission from the Philadelphia Streets Department, volunteers close the road with barricades in the evening. In early summer, millions of babies make the trip back. About 400 volunteers help with each year.

Since its start in 2009, the Toad Detour has saved the lives of 10,600 adult amphibians. The program combines many of the center’s core programming values. Community members care for wild creatures in local habitats, and families learn about the ecology of the American toad. “The hope is to foster environmental stewardship by getting people of all ages out and into the natural world,” says Claire Morgan, the Schuylkill Center’s volunteer coordinator.

Brian Raicich does field work with students from the YMCA’s environmental education program//Photo by Kriston Bethel.

Nature 101

The way he sees it, Brian Raicich has put his degrees in environmental resource management and pollution control to good use. Now the associate executive director of Upper Main Line YMCA, he has served as its youth and family director, camp director, and senior program director of youth development. 

But perhaps his biggest claim to fame at UMLY is the environmental education program he founded there in 1998. He’s since expanded the program to serve more than 2,000 annual participants through camps, classes, workshops and more. The environmental education complex has grown from within the Y’s 54-acre campus to include learning gardens, a science lab, a nature center with over 16 live animal exhibits, and a barn and barnyard with chickens, sheep and goats. There’s also the Cassatt Preserve—20 acres of woodlands, wetlands, meadows, a one-acre pond, five miles of trails, and the headwaters of Darby Creek. A birds-of-prey center will be added in 2016.

Graduates of Raicich’s program have gone on to become science teachers, civil and environmental engineers, ornithologists, and more. UMLY has competed and won in the World Series of Birding each year since 2003. “Children who are engaged in playtime and discovery in the outdoors are in better physical shape, more focused in school, and are just happier kids,” says Raicich. “Instilling an appreciation of the great outdoors in our children will develop our future environmental leaders.”

The emerald ash borer. 

One Tough Insect

The emerald ash borer is the poster bug for the problem of invasive tree species in many local communities where ash trees line the streets. Ten recent grants went to communities offering a model management plan. The first was awarded to West Chester, which was given seed money and has become a demo site. Borough officials, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and West Chester University, are mounting a test case for the Emerald Ash Borer Management Plan for Pennsylvania Communities.

West Chester’s urban forester, Denise Dunn-Kesterson, launched the model 10-year EAB program in 2013. With help from the DCNR and WCU, ash trees in the borough’s three most heavily wooded parks—Hoopes, Marshall Square and Everhart—were evaluated, monitored and treated. The team secured a $25,000 grant and is in the process of injecting the trees with a systematic insecticide to save and prolong the life of more than 100. 

Since 1989, Dunn-Kesterson has supervised the care, maintenance and planting of the borough’s urban canopy. With her help, West Chester has planted more than 3,800 trees and earned the distinction of  Tree City USA annually since 1989. “I’m most proud of planting two trees for every one that had to be removed,” says Dunn-Kesterson, who lives in Downingtown, where her love of horticulture is reflected in her award-winning home gardens. “That, and planting trees for our veterans on Arbor Day, while leaving a diverse urban forest for the future to enjoy.”

Meliora Design’s handiwork at the Philadelphia Zoo. 

Designer Clean

Civil engineering firm Meliora Design has become a go-to for projects related to water and landscape. Located in a repurposed historic church in Phoenixville, the company focuses on “green infrastructure” for stormwater, water reuse, and alternative wastewater systems in an effort to restore ecology, habitat and healthy places. “It’s not what people generally think of when they think of development or engineers,” says Meliora’s Michele Adams. 

That in mind, the firm is always looking for ways to improve design with renewable and ecologically based materials. Many of its projects utilize biochar, a mix of organic waste materials that sequesters carbon as a way to clean urban stormwater before it reaches streams. Its engineers seek out natural systems as models. “Sustainable design is a collaborative effort,” Adams says.

Last year, Meliora was surprised to learn that migrating monarch butterflies were stopping at the Philadelphia Zoo because of a native food source planted in green infrastructure the firm helped design. “That was a greater thrill than any design award,” Adams says. 

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