Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues
Last week, I became president and CEO of PennFuture, a 20-year-old statewide organization fighting for your rights to clean air, pure water, and a healthy climate.
I thought I’d use this blog post to briefly introduce myself to you. I also want to personally thank everyone who supports PennFuture through activism or financial support. We will always need more of both, and I will strive to say thank you over and over again along the way, if I am lucky enough to meet you in person, and through these notes.
I hail from northeastern Pennsylvania, the anthracite coal region – Hazleton to be exact. I grew up surrounded by family – five of the seven houses on my block were occupied by my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and at one point, I could count more than 200 family members living in the Hazleton area. The view from our upstairs window was one of coal breakers, abandoned mineland, strip mines and even a steam shovel or two. Several of my uncles were active with the United Mine Workers and worked oiling the buckets at the end of the behemoth shovels’ arms. One of my uncles died tragically when ground underneath the steam shovel he was operating gave way. I was too young to absorb the breadth of this tragedy, which occurred around the same time that “hard coal” began to see its demise in the early 1960’s.
I left Hazleton the day after high school graduation to begin college at Penn State’s main campus and soon began hiking, and doing a little birdwatching. That was the start of my real love of the outdoors and the wanderlust that has taken me to so many special parts of our state, the country, and beyond. After graduating from Penn State with a degree in English, I lived out west for a spell, working in Arizona and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where I ski bummed and became a river guide. After returning to my hometown, being outdoors and in nature as much as I could was a part of my essence as a person, and I spent a lot of my time around the Nescopeck Creek. The area’s array of wildlife, natural communities and unique flora revealed itself to me in so many special experiences and observations over the many hours I spent there. I fell unabashedly in love with the place and could not believe I grew up so close to it, truly appreciating it all for the first time at the age of 26.
My heart was broken when I learned that the state had plans to flood the valley of the Nescopeck, and condemn those gorgeous bottomland forests, wetlands, and miles upon miles of brook trout habitat to watery oblivion. I said to myself: “I’m not going to let them do it.” And that was the day I became an activist, sometimes warrior, for our environment. I was able to build a large coalition of local, regional and national sportsmen and wildlife groups, supported by a list of state and national natural resource agencies with missions to protect Pennsylvania’s nature and biodiversity, and together, we stopped the dam at what is today Nescopeck State Park.
In the early days of that fight, I met Larry Schweiger, who I now succeed as PennFuture’s president. Larry offered me my first professional position in the environmental field, and I joined him at National Wildlife Federation’s Washington D.C. office as he became head of its national field operation. Since then, Larry and I have worked together twice more over my 32 year career. We collaborated when he brought me into Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and most recently at PennFuture, where I served as executive vice president and chief operating officer prior to my promotion to CEO. I am humbled to be taking the baton from him at this critical time for our planet.
In the coming months and years, I will have much more to share with you about this amazing organization, PennFuture, and the work of my gifted staff and volunteers. For now, let me fast-forward five decades from when I looked out the window of my home.
Today, when I peer out the window of my parents’ home in Hazleton, the mineland in the foreground of my view just this past year has been reclaimed, and the dangerous pits are filled in, graded, and covered with warm season grasses.
Now, I know that at the base of the next ridge over, Nescopeck Creek flows freely, and the next ridge further west of the Susquehanna River is making its way to Chesapeake Bay.
And while there is so much more work to be done – another part of the Nescopeck Creek receives the largest mine drainage on the east coast, and the Susquehanna River is being used to cool Talen Energy’s Susquehanna Nuclear Power Plant -- let me tell you what lies on the furthest ridge out that I can see.
I see a long line of wind turbines, churning out renewable, clean energy: a symbol of our future, our children’s future and Pennsylvania’s Future.