Plans to Build Ashland University Environmental Studies Center at Wetlands Preserve Gets Boost

Plans for Ashland University to build an Environmental Studies Center at the Black Fork Wetlands Preserve located along U.S. 42 near the Ashland County-Richland County line received a big boost on Thursday.

The Crawford-Richland Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO formally pledged $106,000 to complete Phase II of the Environmental Studies Center project, which is the construction of a “green” education center at the site.

Environmental Studies Center The total cost of Phase II construction is $136,000, and the AFL-CIO money raised from its constituents combined with a $30,000 commitment from the Sisler-McFawn Foundation of Akron, Ohio, will complete fundraising for this phase.

The Thursday announcement of the AFL-CIO pledge was made by Ron Davis, president of the Crawford-Richland Central Labor Council, who was joined by Bill Mellick, assistant director of development, academics, at Ashland University; and Bridget McDaniel, director of the Richland Community Development Group.

“The center will be a unique educational facility to further science education and the research of wetlands in the north central Ohio region,” Mellick said. “Once completed, the environmental studies center 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.”

The construction of an Environmental Studies Center at the Black Fork Wetlands Preserve, which is expected to be completed in the fall of 2012, has been a dream of science faculty at Ashland University for many years.

"I'm very excited that the University is partnering with the Labor Council 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."

Dr. Patricia Saunders, director of the environmental science program and associate professor of biology, said that many 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.

"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. "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, professor of biology, serves as preserve manager for Ashland University.

"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.”

Stoffer said University class sessions are held at the preserve several times a semester and studies involving biology, organisms and ecology take place there. Stoffer noted one current study taking place involves looking at invasive, or not native, species of grasses, specifically reed canary-grass.

Individuals and groups from the community often visit the center to look at the ecology and water chemistry of the wetlands, according to Stoffer. Within the waterlogged and wooded preserve, visitors can also witness an untold number of species.

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

Ashland University (www.ashland.edu) is a mid-sized, private university conveniently located a short distance from Akron, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. Ashland University 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. ###