Penn State center protects water creatures, wetlands and open spaces

March 30, 2009

University Park, Pa. -- One wonders how a small, unassuming reptile such as the bog turtle can cause havoc up and down the East Coast. But this animal, which can fit in the palm of your hand, is both endangered in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and federally threatened. Bog turtles live in marshy wetlands with lots of springs; in Pennsylvania these wetlands are often located on the outskirts of cities in the southeast, in the Piedmont region — the very land that builders like to use for new housing developments. Builders currently need to meet a number of regulations to ensure the protection of bog turtles on these locations, and some companies have gone bankrupt waiting during the application process. And, as if the habitat challenges weren’t enough, their rarity and docile nature makes bog turtles prized possessions on the black market.

Environmentalists and conservationists in Pennsylvania hope to have a solution with a Habitat Conservation Plan. The project, led by Robert Brooks, professor of geography and ecology in the Penn State Department of Geography and director of the Penn State Cooperative Wetlands Center, aims to solve conflicts between Pennsylvania and Delaware private landowners, developers and conservationists — all who seek to manage lands and waters differently.

The project is just one example of a way that Brooks, the recipient of this year’s Faculty Outreach Award, demonstrates — in the words of colleague Jim Shortle, Penn State agricultural and environmental economics Distinguished Professor — an “extraordinary ability to work constructively with people to establish and achieve common goals” of improving society and the environment.

From the bog turtle, to wetlands assessment, to educational programs, Brooks leads initiatives that aim to protect what he refers to as “sacred spaces, full of nature’s wonders.”

A Plan for Everyone
In the case of protecting the bog turtle, current regulations are done on a site-by-site basis, and they are not working, say experts. Brooks has seen the range of reactions from different stakeholders. “Some are excited and want to protect the bog turtle,” he said. “Others, who may have economically driven motives, consider the turtles a nuisance. They say, ‘What good are these turtles?’ At that point I usually talk about the importance of protecting biodiversity and ecosystems that provide free ecosystem services to us all.”

The Habitat Conservation Plan would reduce the time in the land developers' application process and alleviate tension, said Brooks. How it works: Core bog turtle habitats would be made off limits — these habitats would be put in conservation banks and subject to permanent protection. In exchange for developers agreeing to purchase credits to support the conservation banks, their timetable to comply with the regulations is reduced, and they gain more certainty about plans to build in other areas that are less damaging to aquatic species and habitats.

The Cooperative Wetlands Center (CWC) and an interdisciplinary team from conservation organizations and resource agencies developed and delivered dozens of presentations and several workshops with groups of land developers, municipal and county officials, and land conservancies about the plan. “Our team met with a range of people and the vast majority are in favor of it,” said Brooks. The plan has recently been presented to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Brooks hopes it will receive approval sometime this year.

Doing the Right Thing
In 1993, Brooks created the CWC (now housed in the Department of Geography) with the aim of producing scientifically valid research and assessment tools for the conservation and restoration of wetlands, wildlife and other aquatic resources.

The effort has proven successful. “Rob’s initial vision of the CWC … has not only survived the test of time, but has also resulted in a significant legacy,” said Denice Wardrop, associate director of the center and associate professor of geography and ecology. “People were attracted to the CWC because of its unique recognition of outreach as the ‘right thing to do,’ whether it was funded or not (it almost always isn’t). Once there, that spirit and philosophy flourished in those who spent any time at all around Rob.”

At the center, Brooks — who jokes that his occupation was destiny because of his last name — oversees and conducts research on wetlands and streams and issues regarding their protection and management. As demonstrated with the bog turtle situation, the center gets this information out to the public to inform policy and planning initiatives.

Another example of this can be seen in the recently completed Atlantic Slope Consortium Project, a five-year initiative involving six institutions — including the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and East Carolina University, among others, and 40 investigators.
Project partners developed various ecological and socioeconomic indicators for assessing the condition and health of aquatic ecosystems in the Mid-Atlantic region.
As director of the project, Brooks encouraged presentations to and interviews with environmental decision makers and resource managers to explain and promote the use of these indicators to improve environmental decision-making.

“Dr. Brooks [met] frequently with EPA’s Office of Water and the Chesapeake Bay Program office staff to understand their research needs and to interpret the science into useful information upon which they could base decisions,” said Barbara Levinson, retired Environmental Protection Agency manager of the Ecosystem Protection Program. “Dr. Brooks really has been a giant in the field of translating science into usable information for stakeholders.” The Chesapeake Bay Program and federal and state agencies are considering the adoption of several of the two dozen indicators that were developed.

Currently, the CWC is working with wetland managers from neighboring states and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to conduct the first-ever regional assessment of wetland condition in the Mid-Atlantic region, visiting 400 sites through 2009. Lessons learned will help guide EPA’s National Wetlands Condition Assessment, scheduled to begin in 2011.

Preserving Rural Character
Such technical expertise should be shared freely and often, according to Brooks, whose encouragement of center faculty, staff and students to serve in local government and conservation organizations is a major effort of his.

Brooks has provided leadership in his own municipality by serving for 15 years as a member on the Planning Commission in Halfmoon Township, a quiet area in Centre County dotted with farms. In this position, Brooks has pushed for the protection of natural resources and the setting aside of open spaces as much as possible.

That’s not always easy, says Brooks. For example, the commission sought to pass an ordinance in the 1990s to set aside 50 percent open space on housing developments. They were met with some resistance. In response, they conducted a mail survey of residents, asking what they liked about Halfmoon. More than 80 percent of residents (there was a 50 percent return) said that most of all, they wanted to preserve the rural character of the township. That sentiment has guided the commission’s work ever since, and it was reconfirmed in a similar survey conducted 10 years later.

That, combined with holding open houses and meetings, helps to win people over. “An informed public is more willing to adopt a new ordinance,” said Brooks, who also serves on advisory committees of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Millbrook Marsh Nature Center in State College, among several others. Millbrook Marsh has emerged as a premier educational center focusing on wetlands and watersheds in central Pennsylvania.

From Salamanders to Science
When asked what is most gratifying about his work, Brooks recalls his childhood. He grew up in central Baltimore County, Md., in a town called Cockeysville. He was able to walk from his house to streams and wetlands, where he could search for salamanders and crayfish. “One of my personal goals that has guided my professional outreach efforts is to ensure that children everywhere have green spaces to explore near their homes,” said Brooks. “I never dreamed such fun could become an occupation.”

This story is from the spring issue of Penn State Outreach magazine. To view other stories go to online.

  • Robert Brooks of Penn State Cooperative Wetlands Center

    IMAGE: Steve Tressler

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010