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Natural Awakenings Lehigh Valley

The Miracle of Lehigh Gap

Apr 09, 2012 09:35AM ● By Beth Davis

In the late 1990s, The Wildlife Information Center’s Board of Directors began making a plan to acquire a parcel of land—perhaps a small farm—on which to build an education center and research facility. After attempting to purchase several properties, board member, Grant White, had an idea. Why not purchase land on a federal Superfund site (any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the Environmental Protection Agency) and turn it into a public nature park at Lehigh Gap?

Dan Kunkle, at the time a Board member and high school science teacher, told White he was crazy. “But then I got to thinking and realized what a great environmental and educational site it would be. We took the idea to the other board members and they agreed.”

The land in question had been devastated by decades of air pollution resulting from industrial zinc smelting that took place from 1898 through the 1970s in two factories in Palmerton. Much of the mountain at the Lehigh Gap Refuge and in surrounding areas was deforested, eroded and left with high levels of zinc and other heavy metals. “It wasn’t a malicious act by the company. In fact, it was an outstanding company,” explains Kunkle. “Even back then, they had social and healthcare programs for their workers and during the Great Depression, nobody lost their job.” However, it was their pollution that caused so much damage to the Kittatinny Ridge—damage that board members wanted to help fix.

“We had a vision of not only restoring the damaged landscape, but also establishing an ecotourism facility that would include hiking trails, educational facilities and wildlife habitat,” says Kunkle. The question was how. The group had no paid staff and an annual budget of $15,000. They would need nearly $1 million to acquire the land, which consisted of three properties—440 acres of land that was completely barren; 300 acres of land that contained some ponds and wetlands; and 14 acres that had a house and an old barn.

To make time for the work associated with the project, Kunkle took a leave of absence from his teaching career. With his help, the organization purchased over 750 acres on the Kittatinny Ridge to the west of the Lehigh River and in Lehigh Gap in 2002—after securing bridge loans, private donations, personal loans and corporate grants (all of which were paid off by the end of 2005). In December of that same year, the group moved their headquarters to the home on the property—known as Osprey House—and took on the official title of Lehigh Gap Nature Center, a non-profit, member-run conservation organization. Since then, they have been dedicated to preserving wildlife and habitat through conservation, education, and research for the benefit of the Earth and all its inhabitants.

Kunkle, now the Executive Director of Lehigh Gap Nature Center, says their first order of business was figuring out how to restore the degraded land. Because it was a Superfund site, the EPA was allowed to clean up the site and compel the responsible parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-lead cleanups.

In an interesting turn of events, Kunkle found that, through a series of mergers and acquisitions over the years, Viacom International was partially responsible for the Superfund clean-up and they were already working with the EPA to find a way to re-vegetate the mountainside. He met with Viacom’s vice-president, and from that moment on, Viacom (now CBS Operations) has been an outstanding partner in the Lehigh Gap Restoration Project.

“I can’t say enough good things about working with CBS on this project,” notes Kunkle. “They did not cause one bit of pollution, but they are the responsible party under the law. They take that responsibility very seriously and have done a great job. By working together toward these goals, we have a model of how the Superfund process should work.”

Soon, a re-vegetation plan using various species of native, zinc-tolerant prairie grasses was devised. Beginning in 2003, test plot areas on the mountain were seeded and fertilized, both from the ground and later by aerial application of seeds with crop dusters. Perennial forbs (wildflowers) were later added to the grassland area. The program has been a grand success, as evidenced by dramatic transformation of the mountainside. And, as time goes on and the grasslands continue to thrive and expand, Kunkle expects to see significant growth in the abundance and diversity of wildlife.

For those concerned about chemicals that may be in the soil, or in the water, Kunkle says don’t be. “These residual metals are not very soluble in water, therefore have not gotten into our ground water,” he explains. “The grasses do not take up the chemicals in any significant amounts, so it is safe for the wildlife to eat.”

Other parts of the property were a productive habitat already, including ponds, bottomland wetlands, a 2.5-mile riparian zone, forested slopes, cliffs, and savanna at the higher elevations. The refuge is valuable habitat for resident species, and a corridor and stopover site for migratory species. The refuge not only provides wildlife habitat, but is the site for wildlife research carried out by Center staff and volunteers, and in conjunction with local colleges and universities. It also serves as an outdoor classroom to support educational programs—a very important factor in the mission of the Nature Center.

“Education is our top priority,” notes Kunkle. “Last year we welcomed 5,000 kids. I attribute that to the fact that we take a different approach with schools. We don’t do programs for schools, we do programs with schools—working with the teachers to meet their needs.” 

However, education is everywhere—whether they are doing hawk migration research, presenting at public meetings, or simply answering questions at Osprey House. Kunkle says, “We want people to appreciate the fact that environment sustains them, and they should care.”

In July 2010, the Lehigh Gap Nature Center dedicated its new visitor and education building. The building includes a visitor lobby, an information station, a multipurpose great hall, a research library, a classroom/laboratory and restrooms. An educational exhibit in the lobby explains the Lehigh Gap Nature Center’s unique history and environmental restoration work. Other interactive exhibits illustrate the habitats present at Lehigh Gap with the purpose of getting people outdoors in the real habitats to explore the refuge. 

Kunkle eventually left his job as a teacher and dedicates himself full-time to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. Over the years, he has watched membership grow from approximately 200 members 10 years ago to upward of 600 today. He marvels at the strides the all-volunteer organization has made over the years. In fact, it is the only Superfund site in the country that has been turned into an environmental education center. Kunkle is quick to point out, though, that their work is not done.

“Conservation work is ongoing and challenging, so we adjust as we go along,” he says. “You don’t just plant and walk away. We are definitely not done.”

For more information, call 610-760-8889 or visit