Classroom Building Construction Underway at the Black Fork Wetlands Environmental Studies Center

Classroom Building Construction Underway at the Black Fork Wetlands Environmental Studies Center

9/9/14 ASHLAND, Ohio – Construction was started last month on a classroom building at Ashland University’s Black Fork Wetlands Environmental Studies Center located along U.S. 42 near the Ashland County-Richland County line.

The 1,200-square-foot classroom building, which is expected to be dedicated on Oct. 23, has been a development goal of the Ashland University faculty steering committee since the Environmental Studies Center was started in 2005.

The “green” building will feature an open classroom, a storage area and restroom facilities, which are comprised of two self-contained composting toilets. The building also features several roof skylights to maximize the daylighting for the classroom.

In 2012, the Crawford-Richland Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO committed to naming the facility with a major gift. In addition, the Sisler-McFawn Foundation of Akron, Ohio; the Richland County Foundation; and Grant Milliron joined together to complete fundraising for this second phase.

The first phase of development at the Black Fork Wetlands Environmental Studies Center was made possible by the Clean Ohio Fund, with additional support from Richland County Foundation. This phase included a parking area, a short walking trail and 400-foot boardwalk with an observation deck and bird-watching tower constructed in 2007.

“The classroom building will be a unique educational facility that will further science education and the research of wetlands in the north central Ohio region,” according to Dr. Patricia Saunders, director of the environmental science program and associate professor of biology at Ashland University. The building is designed to accommodate wet students and equipment, as well as the occasional flood.

“Once completed, the classroom will be available for educational outings and research by Ashland University students, other college students, high school, middle school and elementary school students and other community organizations,” Saunders said.

Saunders said that K-12 school groups, teacher workshops and community members often use the wetlands' current observation deck as a main station to observe and interact with the plants and animals at the preserve.

"We believe it will be even better to have the classroom nearby, where groups could use microscopes and do more in-depth studies of how wetlands work," Saunders said. "The preserve is a fabulous area with many different types of habitat that support a very diverse wildlife. 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."

Dr. Richard Stoffer, now retired professor of biology, has served as preserve manager for Ashland University for many years.

"The Black Fork preserve is used for teaching and research. 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 sandhill cranes.”

He said University class sessions are held at the preserve several times a semester and studies involving biology, organisms and ecology take place there.

Stoffer said the program members are still in the process of surveying all of the species in the wetlands, with more than 128 species of birds and 42 species of 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, including the research projects involving a number of students, led the Environmental Science program to be recognized by the Richland Co. Soil and Water Conservation District (RCSWCD) at its annual meeting in late 2010. 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.

"I'm very excited that the University has partnered with a number of local groups to raise funds in support of a center like this at the Black Fork Wetlands Preserve," said Dawn Weber, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "Such a center will be used by University students, faculty researchers, public schools in Ashland and Richland counties, and members of the community."

Margaret Pomfret, vice president for development at AU, said since Ashland University is newly located in Mansfield with its College of Nursing, it was exciting that the members of the AFL/CIO led by President Ron Davis approached the University to become partners in this endeavor.

“They understood the value of educating young people as well as providing educational research,” Pomfret said. “Other Ashland University supporters joined this venture between our two counties to make this a major success.”

Ashland University, which has been ranked in the top 200 colleges and universities in U.S. News and World Report’s National Universities category, is a mid-sized, private university conveniently located a short distance from Akron, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. Ashland University (www.ashland.edu) values the individual student and offers a unique educational experience that combines the challenge of strong, applied academic programs with a faculty and staff who build nurturing relationships with their students. ###

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