Catawba Finds it Easy to be Green-Center for the Environment celebrates 10th anniversary
04/17/06 by Salisbury Post
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story by Scott Jenkins appeared April 17, 2006, in the Salisbury Post
Catawba College is widely known for its performing arts programs. But in just 10 years, the college has also built a reputation on another stage - as a leader in environmental advocacy and education.
That's thanks to the Catawba College Center for the Environment, which marks its first decade of existence this year and its evolution from campus program to regional resource.
The center will mark its 10th anniversary with an Earth Day celebration Friday and Saturday co-sponsored by the Downtown Salisbury Association.
A sustainability showcase starting at 6 p.m. Friday in F&M Trolley Barn on East Liberty Street will be the first of many Earth Day events scheduled for the two-day celebration.
For Dr. John Wear Jr., a Rowan County native, starting and directing the center was a continuation of the belief in public service that had always been a part of his family.
"For me, what was really important as I looked at the potential of the program was the fact that this was the kind of program that had great potential for involvement in the community," he said.
Wear, then with the Savannah River Technology Center, visited Catawba in 1992 and spoke to give a lecture. While there, several faculty members approached him about creating an environmental science program at the school.
He worked with college faculty on a grant to start the program and the next year joined Catawba as an assistant professor of biology.
Under Wear's guidance, the program got students involved in environmental stewardship projects locally and across the state, forged partnerships with environmental advocacy groups and other organizations and hosted one of the largest conferences on watershed issues in the nation.
With the LandTrust for Central North Carolina, the center helped establish the South Yadkin Wildlife Refuge.
And it worked to expand the college's ecological preserve and advocated for the Salisbury greenway.
By the mid-1990s, Wear said, the work originating at Catawba "really was beyond the scope of a single program." In 1996, the college made the Center of the Environment an official entity and Wear its director.
The center continued building relationships with agencies and governments and has sent its students out to work for them. And it developed new initiatives to develop solutions to the region's pressing environmental problems. For example, it spurred a study of the importance of preserving tree canopy by putting a dollar value on the environmental services trees provide, such as controlling air pollution and runoff.
The center's students successfully petitioned Catawba's leadership to incorporate environmentally friendly measures into future construction and graduates have been its "best ambassadors," Wear said.
And it recently hosted a clean-air conference and just announced a new institute for training leaders - among its students and across the region - in how to develop sustainable communities.
Sustainability means developing for present needs without compromising future generations' ability to do the same, Wear said, and that has become a primary focus of the center.
It has also become a priority to local government, and Salisbury Mayor Susan Kluttz credited the Center for the Environment with helping to make it so.
"It's helped make the city more aware - city council and staff - and that's particularly in planning and areas like fleet management, that we need to always incorporate an awareness of the environment in decisions being made," she said.
That awareness, the mayor said, has resulted in an intensified focus on sidewalks, greenways and "walkable communities," Rowan County's involvement in regional environmental study, and in other measures, such as the city adding electric and hybrid vehicles to its fleet.
"It's one of the reasons that I think we're such advocates for rail travel," Kluttz said.
She said, the center's influence has spread beyond government officials. In Salisbury, residents who took part in the city's long-range planning process named the environment as a top issue.
For businesses considering bringing jobs to the area, the center "helps promote our city as positive and progressive," Kluttz said.
And government leaders visiting from other municipalities and counties in the region want to see the center and what it's doing to help protect and improve the environment."I think it's had a tremendous impact and I think it's one of our greatest assets now," Kluttz said.
The center's work takes on even greater meaning as Rowan and the region face more growth and struggle with being designated a "non-attainment" area for government air-quality standards, a tag that could cost federal transportation dollars.
Wear said he hopes the center, locally and beyond, can help "reduce the size of our environmental footprint."
"More and more people have really come to rely on the things we're doing and look for involvement," he said. "And so I think over the next five years and maybe the next decade, you're going to see a lot of education of the community and region and state going on here at the center."
Wear and the center have gained a good deal of recognition. He recently spoke on the nationally syndicated radio program Earth and Sky. And the center was featured on the PBS show Simple Living.
Any accolades, Wear said, are "a testament to a lot of people that have been involved with us," including volunteers, partners and donors such as the late Elizabeth Stanback, who primarily funded the $6 million construction of the building that houses the Center for the Environment.
Opened in 2001, the facility is one the most visible and widely praised aspects of the program. It was one of thefirst "green" buildings constructed in the state, so called for its reduced impact on the environment. The exterior is made of recycled wood and concrete and red cedar grown and harvested with minimal environmental impact. The floors are made of bamboo instead of hardwoods. A closed-loop system uses water and recaptured exhaust heat for heating and cooling. Solar panels collect energy that is stored and provides 10 percent of the building's electricity. Collected rainwater provides irrigation to landscaping designed for education and wildlife habitat.
The building has many more energy-and resource-saving features. In fact, the showcase of environmental friendliness formed Catawba President Dr. Robert Knott's initial impression of the center, as it has others. "I was aware of the unique construction and the purchase and development of the preserve," he said. "So what I saw coming in from the outside was an instructional opportunity with a unique facility that virtually none of our sister institutions had."
Knott succeeded the retired J. Fred Corriher as the college's president in 2002. He served as provost and in other capacities at Catawba in the 1980s, but left before the Center for the Environment was formed. He had seen the facility in a 10th grade biology textbook that named it and two others as good examples of green buildings on campuses around the country, but Knott said he didn't know the center's full scope.
"The center extends beyond our classrooms into the community" by holding forums and bringing the latest research to bear on pressing issues like land development, he said. "We see that as part of our educational mission ... being a resource and asset to the larger community in the region.
"We see the college becoming increasingly visible as a catalyst that raises the questions and gets the critical people together to talk about how we can all live in better circumstances in our community," he said. Knott noted that thousands of school children tour the Center for the Environment facility and the ecological preserve each year. He said a number of other colleges have come to take a look at Catawba's environmental science program as a possible model for their own. And, he said, the center's growing reputation has tripled the college's environmental science enrollment, making Catawba known for more than its performing arts programs.
"I think it is very close behind them right now," he said. "I think it is beginning to be recognized well beyond our immediate region as a program worth coming to Catawba to study."