May 28, 2015 | Amanda Greenhoe

Photo by Bill Vriesema

In vernal pools frogs swim, while a barred owl dutifully keeps watch overhead. Nearby, wild turkeys forage under towering maples. In tall grass a mother grey fox trots to her kits, passed by the fluttering speed of a defensive red-winged blackbird. 

On the other side of the woods, students bustle in and out of classes and residence halls, making their home just steps from the natural wonders of the 100-acre Calvin College Ecosystem Preserve. And while the creatures in the preserve remain blissfully unaware, their human counterparts on campus are celebrating a recently secured $500,000 grant for the preserve and its education hub, the Bunker Interpretive Center. 

The half million in financial support comes from The Harry A. & Margaret D. Towsley Foundation based in Midland, Michigan. Among other causes, the family foundation invests in education, natural sciences and conservation—a legacy furthered by this commitment to Calvin. Paid over five years, the grant will support land management and educational programming.

Hospitality, research and respite

The preserve, founded in 1985, and the interpretive center, completed in 2004, have collectively welcomed tens of thousands of visitors to campus. Guests take advantage of educational elementary school programs (more than 32,000 students), nature camps (over 700 participants) and open access trails (about 6,000 guests annually).

“This is a place that’s very open to the public, and that’s how we want it,” said Megan Berglund, director of foundation relations and grants. “This commitment to making the preserve open to the community is one thing that interested the Towsley Foundation.”  

In addition to outside guests, nearly 20 Calvin programs study or research in the preserve annually and, over the years, more than 600 students have been employed at either the preserve or the interpretive center.

“Mentoring and providing Calvin students with hands-on work experiences that complement what they learn in class is a large part of our educational mission,” said Jeanette Henderson, ecosystem preserve program manager. She explained that student employees from a variety of fields serve in land management and educational programming roles.

“I want you to care about God’s creation,” she said of her approach to working with students in different majors. “Working here might shape your future profession. It might influence the habitats of your daily life, how you raise your future children to care for creation or how you vote on environmental issues.”

Randy Van Dragt, professor of biology and the preserve’s director, sees the protected land as a Calvin distinctive. “Of all the colleges in Michigan we’re really among the few that have one preserve, not to mention two,” he said (also referencing Calvin’s off-campus Flat Iron Lake Preserve). 

Besides education, Van Dragt says the on-campus preserve is also a place for respite. “You don’t have to go out there to study,” Van Dragt said. “You can just go out and take some relief from engaging the natural world, which is well established as psychologically beneficial.”

Active management

Van Dragt makes it clear that there is still work to be done in maintaining the preserve—in fact, there always will be.

“Living systems change,” he explained. “Because it’s an urban preserve, it has a lot of pressures on it to change. Take invasive plant species, which are often associated with disturbance, we have a lot of problems with those. And that means that it costs; there are real expenses involved in retaining a diversity of habitats and not having them homogenize under the influences of invasive species and other things.”

“In order to keep these habitats, we have to do management—active management,” Henderson echoed. “It takes funds, and it takes time and it takes skill.”

The Towsley grant is a significant step in funding the preserve and interpretive center. Students, faculty and staff will continue to provide the time and skills necessary to run this unlikely gem—a multi-faceted urban preserve right here on Calvin’s campus.

“We get to share this space with God’s creation, and study it and relax in it,” Henderson said. “Not every college campus has these opportunities.”

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