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Catawba at Forefront of Environmental Commitment

10/17/99 by Staff Writer


From the October 17, 1999, issue of the Raleigh News & Observer

Salisbury — They swish plankton nets at the edge of a pond. They examine nitrate and phosphate levels in water samples. They crawl into hip waders so they can collect insect larvae from Grant’s Creek.

Catawba College’s environmental science students have rare opportunities every day because a living laboratory sits at their back door. The college, a liberal arts institution with about 1,200 students, boasts a 189-acre ecological preserve right on campus. Students can examine and compare the organisms in a swamp, a lake and a river in a single field trip.

Catawba has made a significant commitment to conservation as well as to its environmental science program. It was the first college in the state and one of the first in the county to cede its development rights to a land trust. In 1998, Catawba trustees turned over the rights for the college’s preserve to the LandTrust for Central North Carolina. The trust will keep the rights in perpetuity, ensuring that neither the college nor future owners can ever build on the property.

Construction began recently on a $5.6 million environmentally sensitive facility to house the college’s Center for the Environment. Elizabeth Stanback, a longtime Catawba benefactor whose family is known in the state and the nation for its support of environmental causes, provided the money for the building.

The building, which will integrate recycled materials into its construction, has been designed as an organic extension of the preserve. It will be positioned for maximum use of natural lighting and for minimal disturbance of the natural site. Geothermal energy, which is used in other buildings on campus, will heat and cool the building. Use of glass and sustainable materials will integrate it into the natural environment.

Dr. John Wear, director of Catawba’s Center for the Environment, noted that the vision for the center has been “to create a building that embodies the spirit of a new Catawba, a forward-thinking Catawba, a Catawba with a vision about how we live in harmony with our natural environment.

“This will be a building that represents now and to future generations the commitment of Catawba College to the conservation and sustainable use of earth’s resources,” he said.

Jeff Michael, executive director of the LandTrust, said Catawba’s Center for the Environment has emerged as a “recognized leader across the state in environmental education and awareness.”

Michael said the new facility will be “a place that inspires the imagination, setting young minds on fire about their own potential contributions to meeting the world’s environmental challenges – the sort of place where future leaders are created.”

The center regularly arranges student internships with organizations like the North Carolina Zoo, the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge and the LandTrust.

Catawba also offers expeditions to the tropical rain forests and coral reefs of Belize, the cloud forests of the Ecuadorian Andes and the Galapagos Islands. “The enrichment value of a trip like this is tremendous,” Wear said.

“You can hear the sounds and smell the smells, and just really connect to what we’re trying to teach, from the sense of understanding both the natural history of the area and the complexities involved in protecting these areas.”

A recent trip to Belize allowed students to identify plant species on three different islands, collect baseline data on water quality and observe fluid dynamics in fish. “It brought a deeper understanding of the ecosystem than any book can convey,” Wear said.

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