Parkland Press

Friday, June 5, 2020
Press photo by Elsa KerschnerBrian Birchak and Chad Schwartz, co-directors, will fill the position of Dan Kunkle, now director emeritus, of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. Press photo by Elsa KerschnerBrian Birchak and Chad Schwartz, co-directors, will fill the position of Dan Kunkle, now director emeritus, of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center.

Dan Kunkle settles in as director emeritus of nature center

Thursday, February 6, 2020 by Elsa Kerschner in Local News

Dan Kunkle, director of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, has retired from his mostly volunteer job.

He appreciates the many volunteers who helped make his time at the center so successful. He has received state and national awards and the center has received many more.

For 28 years he was a biology and environmental science teacher at Freedom High School until he took early retirement in 2004.

During his teaching years, he took students on field trips, a project that merely expanded when he quit teaching to work at the center where colleges would bring students many miles to learn of the work that had been done.

He did a lot of work with the teachers. Many of them, after visiting the center on a field trip, became volunteers and contributed their knowledge to the programs.

But it was at the Wildlife Information Center in a Slatington storefront that he joined Don Heintzelman and others and talk began of a nature center.

They looked for land to buy and Grant White said the mountain in the Gap needed them as much as they needed land.

White looked at tax maps and found an abutting piece with three ponds which would provide a different type of environment.

The main mountain was 740 acres and the final piece was that which contained the buildings: a residence and a tannery.

As they were looking at the land an Osprey flew along the Lehigh River, so the main building was named the Osprey House.

A new access was built with better availability and there was room to add a visitor center.

But building a program became a first priority. Field trips introduced people to the new center and helped build membership.

Kunkle said it was different from just being a classroom teacher because the classes became so popular people were being turned away. The center is averaging 11,000 students a year.

Kunkle and others researched the best method of replanting the mountain and with his board of directors the decision was made that warm season grasses seemed to be the best way to go.

Test plots were planted. On the lower level planting was done by machine but on the upper levels it had to be done by hand and airplane.

Full-scale planting was scheduled for 2006 and the mountain greened for the first time in many years.

By 2009, it was time to add to the building and by 2010 it was ready to be occupied.

This was when the library could be moved from the basement of the residence on the property to the basement of the addition.

More people became familiar with it and donations came in but the major contribution was the donation of Heintzelman’s collection which now formed the core of the growing library. Kunkle said it is the best nature/environmental library in the state.

The remainder of the basement became a laboratory/workspace. Eventually microscopes were added for each table.

An arboretum was planted without the formality of most public arboretums. Birchak said he watered and kept it clean the first year to give the young plants a good start.

Chad Schwartz and Brian Birchak joined the team. Schwartz had a background of three and a half years of environmental science at Muhlenberg College but had been coming to the center on his own and on college field trips.

He did two internships and wrote a bibliography on the Kittatinny Ridge. He spent a summer working on the restoration project.

Birchak has a degree in graphic design and biology at Moravian and Muhlenberg colleges and is the communication specialist. He has lived in the area since the West Plant of the New Jersey Zinc Company had closed, so he had the privilege of watching the mountain change.

Kunkle said both Schwartz and Birchak did things at the center before they were known quantities. The transition came after they had gained confidence.

They became co-directors after picking up management skills.

While the board had been trying to choose between the two, they found co-directors worked well for Just Born Candy, Bethlehem, and that is the way they went beginning with January.

Bob Hoopes, who has been on the board since 2000, led the transition.

Kunkle serves as a volunteer advisor who keeps his nose out of what they are doing until he is asked. Both young men said they are glad to have his advice.

Some of the projects are an annual whippoorwill hike to a point on the mountain. A major event is the fall raptor count on Bake Oven Knob which usually has an intern come to help.

Two all day events are the pollinator day in the garden and the migration fest.

The Rotary built a pavilion where bikers on the center’s trails and nearby Delaware and Lehigh Corridor trail can stop to rest and lunch. Each Rotary club completed a major project to celebrate its 100th year.

A members and volunteers picnic is held in the pavilion each year, weather permitting.

There are a series of speakers each year who talk about their areas of expertise. Anita Collins, board president, brought her knowledge of bees and expanded her research on the mountain.

Kunkle said they will eventually have a research center, restore the tannery, and add to the education staff.

He and his wife, Lee, plan to use his free time to do some traveling. Recently they took a National Geographic tour to Chile.

But he plans to stay involved.