A little more than 25 years ago, biology professor Randy Van Dragt had a vision for a piece of land adjacent to the Calvin campus, teeming with wildlife, but used primarily as a dump for construction project refuse.
“I was looking for some project space for students when I came across heaps of college refuse that was dumped over there—broken concrete, leftover bricks,” Van Dragt said of the plot of land just east of the East Beltline. “I was most concerned with getting the dumping to stop, but I started to take an active interest in that woods.”
The college had purchased the 40-acre plot in 1964 without much fanfare as the administration was preoccupied by numerous construction projects on the west side of the Beltline. The college had recently moved to the new Knollcrest campus, and fieldhouse construction was under way, followed by the Fine Arts Center, several residence halls and the Commons.
The area, once part of a local horse farm, contained a mixed hardwood forest, abandoned hayfields and wetlands (mostly vernal ponds).
“I think it was Ken Kuipers [the late Calvin English professor] who first articulated the idea that ‘we should do something with that woods across the road,’” said Van Dragt.
In the summer of 1974, biology professor Al Gebben and then-student John Ubels did: They mapped a grid of the woodlot—the first known study of the land. Since then a tree census has been done regularly in the preserve.
In 1977, the college established the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (CCCS), and the first group of scholars gathered to study the topic “Christian Stewardship and Natural Resources.” One result of this group was the book Earthkeeping, a groundbreaking publication in the Christian discussion of responsible stewardship.
A second outcome—a natural consequence given the theme of the book—was a written proposal by the scholars to establish a preserve on the acreage east of campus: “The establishment and designation of this ecosystem preserve as described in this proposal contributes to the college and community at large in a way similar to that of a library or museum: it creates an educational resource whose utility is much broader than an individual program or discipline—serving many departments and interests… . Such a broad-based resource—a ‘living museum’—increases its worth in time, and its users extend into numerous future generations.”
The college administration concurred and set the parcel aside for such use. A grant from the William R. Angell Foundation helped fund the bridges, decks and trails in the initial 40 acres, and the preserve was opened for college use in the fall of 1985.
Van Dragt, who was a part of the planning committee and later named the preserve director, said at the time, “The highest priority of the college is to preserve the natural character of the site. It only has aesthetic and research value if preserved.”
Just a year after the Ecosystem Preserve opened, a large swath of land, adjacent to the preserve and extending to East Paris Avenue, became available. The 127-acre parcel, which contained an 8-acre swamp, had been used for corn farming as late as 1985.
“I think some people were thinking, ‘Why would we want that old swampland?’” Van Dragt said. “Our primary goal was to contain the watershed for Whiskey Creek, which runs through the preserve. That purchase made the preserve viable. Looking back, it was one of the wiser things we ever did.”
The additional land perpetuated bigger plans for the preserve. Providing opportunities for the community beyond Calvin became one of the goals for the spot. “We always had in mind that it could become a recreational and educational asset for the community,” said Van Dragt. “We were hopeful that it could become a point of connection with the surrounding community. If you don’t respect it, it’s harder to keep it, and with education we thought we could enhance people’s sensitivity to creation and its care.”
Thus in 1995, Van Dragt initiated an educational program for elementary students at the preserve. Two years later, Cheryl Hoogeboom Hoogewind ’93 was hired as the preserve’s first program manager.
Currently, more than 2,000 youngsters enter the preserve every year through educational field trips, class offerings and summer camps.
“Both our elementary education and summer camps programs have been very well received,” said Jeannette Henderson, who became the program manager in 2007. The popular one-week summer camp programs have themes such as “Creepy Crawlies” and “Bugs and Blooms.” Other educational classes have been offered throughout the years focusing on such topics as “Critters in the Cold,” “Frog Frenzy” and “Fun with our Feathered Friends.”
Because of the large expanse (now recognized as about 90 acres due to college construction on the east side of campus), the site has also become valuable to other college departments—much beyond the expected biology and environmental studies specialties.
“One of the goals of the preserve has always been for it to be an educational place,” said Van Dragt. “Whether it’s scientific study or for inspiration; it can be that for different people—painters, musicians, writers.”
In fact, the preserve receives more than 500 visitors per week. “We welcome departments that can use this amazing place for educational purposes,” said Henderson. “We’ve had geology, archaeology (see page 26), architect, English students. We’ve even had a Latin class lecture held here; it inspires a lot of people.”
Van Dragt is grateful for the preserve’s inspirational effects: “For an undeveloped portion of campus to exist as long as this one has is unique. I think what happened here is that it was established in the minds of people as a preserve before other pressures set in. I’m pleased as can be about where we are at with this preserve on campus; it causes us to pause and think about creation, and it stands as a good example of how to bring developed and undeveloped land together.”
Henderson agreed that the preserve is a special place. “It all comes back to the belief of this college that it is important to care for God’s creation,” she said. “We feel strongly that God has called us to set this land aside and to stick with that plan. It is so amazing the way it has blessed the college, the students and the community.”