A $1.25 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation will help Allegheny College create a watershed conservation research center at the school.

Faculty and students will work with community partners in conservation-based research and educational outreach in the upper Allegheny River basin, focusing on the French Creek watershed.

"Allegheny College is a proven conservation partner in an important ecological region of western Pennsylvania," said Sam Reiman, director of the foundation. "We are pleased to support the college’s watershed conservation research center, which will expand the college’s ability to conduct in-depth environmental research; to teach watershed stewardship; and to foster community partnerships to promote sustainable activation of the French Creek and upper Allegheny River watersheds.”

The formal research center will address a longstanding need for a formal research center focused on the extremely biodiverse French Creek watershed, according to Kelly Pearce, an assistant professor of environmental science and sustainability at Allegheny.

Pearce and Casey Bradshaw-Wilson, another assistant professor of environmental science and sustainability, are to be its co-directors.

The center is being formed now, with projects with students and partner agencies to begin in the summer of 2022.

The center’s work will focus on three broad areas — research, partnerships and educational programs.

College faculty and student researchers will collect data to aid in the protection of both aquatic and terrestrial wildlife species and habitats.

"The center will further enhance the college’s nationally recognized commitment to sustainability and our distinctive approach to education, which challenges students to examine issues from multiple perspectives to solve problems," Allegheny President Hilary Link said. "The grant will also help us to strengthen new and existing partnerships with our local community, allowing us to promote the immense potential of the French Creek watershed as a destination point for nature tourism and related sustainable economic development."

Allegheny will provide support by integration of a number of its well-established programs such as Allegheny's Creek Connections, school-age educational program, into the center.

Research projects will assess the watershed’s value for regional economies. Projects will identify areas of highest conservation value and greatest need for restoration and monitoring of aquatic invertebrates, fish and wildlife species.

"We are very excited to engage our students in local conservation and foster a strong interest in watersheds, teaching the importance of treating these systems as whole systems," Pearce said.

"What happens on land really influences what happens in the water," Bradshaw-Wilson said. "And that's why we wanted to expand the center’s focus to encompass the aquatic environment as well as the terrestrial environment, including the wildlife and people who live there."

Goals of the center are to  help those involved with it have an understanding of the watershed, identify potential problems and work with others to develop comprehensive solutions.

The broader perspective means faculty and students could study related topics such as economic factors in the watershed.

The center will take an interdisciplinary approach toward science communication, uniting conservation research with the creative arts, humanities and social sciences to share stories to promote the watershed and educate the public.

Community partnerships also will be fundamental to the new center.

The French Creek Valley Conservancy, based in Meadville, is looking forward to working with the new research center, according to Brenda Costa, the conservancy's executive directo. The conservation group owns and protects more than 3,000 acres within the French Creek watershed.

"We're really excited about this as we don't have scientific staff here at the conservancy," Costa said. "It's a great opportunity for faculty and staff to do meaningful research that will benefit our work at the conservancy."

Research by the new center will help the French Creek Valley Conservancy with its priorities for land conservation and habitat protection, Costa said.

The center plans to create student internships, identify research needs, conduct targeted conservation research and evaluate ways to promote sustainable nature tourism.

The center will use state-of-the-art technology to monitor water chemistry and quality, implement conservation actions and solutions, provide education and outreach, and promote the potential of the region to serve as a destination for ecotourism.

The center also will work closely with the Allegheny College Creek Connections program, which involves kindergarten through 12th grade students in conservation and education activities in the watershed.

Keith Gushard can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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