2016-05-01 / Features

Nature's Course

You don’t have to go far to take a walk on the wet and wild side.
Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

There are two things in particular that make Millbrook Marsh Nature Center a wonder, but they seem mutually exclusive: The first is the easy accessibility to the wetlands, forest and meadows via the center’s boardwalks and pathways. The second is the relatively untouched pristineness of its 62
acres of flora and fauna.

“Millbrook Marsh Nature Center is a special place — I’d even call it a sacred place — in the Centre Region, where nature is revealed and art, history and culture can be celebrated,” says Dr. Robert Brooks, professor of geography and ecology at Penn State and a member of the nature center’s advisory committee. “It’s a place to unplug, absorb the sounds of water and birds, and watch the seasons change.”

The property, hidden in plain sight off Routes 322 and 26 near Spring Creek Park in College Township, is owned by Penn State and leased to Centre Region Parks and Recreation for $1 per year. The Clearwater Conservancy holds a conservation easement on the place, as it is a unique aquatic ecosystem within a developing urban setting.

That, says Brooks, is not only what makes it unique, but also what makes it important.

“It’s one of the largest wetland and stream complexes in the region, and it’s right here in State College’s backyard,” says Brooks, who brings students out to study the marsh every year. “Scientifically, our center, Riparia, at Penn State, has learned much by studying portions of this aquatic gem for 20 years. Every year thousands of students of all ages visit Millbrook to learn about the valued ecosystem services provided by the wetlands and streams, such as floodwater storage, nutrient and sediment retention, and wildlife and fish habitats.”

Yet even though the nature center hosted 13,000 visitors to its programs in 2015, Millbrook Marsh continues to be a bit of a hidden gem to much of the community. That is, unless you have elementary school-aged children, in which case you’ve no doubt either visited the nature center or had a brochure sent home about it after a field trip.

Program leader Danielle Lanagan guides elementary-aged school groups through the marsh with the aim of instilling in them an appreciation for the environment that will stick long after their two-hour tour is done.

“I don’t think people realize how interdependent everything is. We show them a model of a watershed, and then point to properties higher in elevation and say, ‘Now this person is putting fertilizer on their lawn’ or ‘This person is spraying for bees.’ Then it rains, and it shows the effects of all those chemicals running to the lower elevations, and they’re like ‘Aww, that’s not right!’” says Lanagan. “The older students — say fourth grade — are really starting to understand, ‘Hey, we need to protect nature.’”  

Class tours of the marsh, like all other programs at the nature center, cost $7 per student, says nature center supervisor Melissa Freed. The Clearwater Conservancy uses its grant program, aimed at connecting children with nature, to provide needed funds for schools that apply for assistance in covering the fees.

This year they’ve helped just over 2,000 students attend in the spring from areas across the region, including Bellefonte, Pleasant Gap, Phillipsburg and State College, she says.

While the class tours for kindergartners through fourth-graders are a staple at the nature center in the fall and spring, Lanagan and other staffers are opening minds even younger than that year-round through its Puddle Jumpers program, a nature-based play and learn program for ages 3 to 5.

“That’s something we’re really passionate about, getting kids at a young age outside and hands-on, experiencing and learning things on their own through discovery,” Freed says.

Two mornings a week, the Puddle Jumper crew can be seen hauling their wagon filled with shovels, buckets, binoculars, magnifying lenses and other utensils out into the marsh to get their hands dirty and their minds turning.  

“That’s been so much fun,” says Lanagan, who teaches the class. “There are no worksheets. It’s all nature-based learning. When it’s nice, we’ll be in the stream, flipping over rocks, seeing what’s living there.”

Bathgate Springs Run, Thompson Run and Slab Cabin Run all flow through Millbrook Marsh on their way to joining nearby Spring Creek. Wooden boardwalks and bridges keep walkers, joggers, cyclists and student groups high and dry while also leading them right through the middle of the ecosystem. The property boasts more than 150 native plants and over 50 species of songbirds, as well as blue heron, ducks, hawks and plenty of land animals too. There’s even a bird blind where visitors can catch a glimpse of barn swallows feeding their young in nests attached to the ceiling.

While there are informative panels lining the walls of the bird blind and a few others along the marsh’s pathways, the nature center doesn’t have an indoor museum or permanent exhibit space.

“We don’t have any displays,” Freed says. “People think of a nature center and look for the displays, and at Millbrook Marsh currently all the action is out in the marsh. Our facilities are used for programs and events, and they’re available to rent for all occasions.”

Those facilities include an 1850s bank barn, which stores a beaver dam display donated from Discovery Space and a small puppet theater display, and the LEED Certified Silver Spring Creek Education Building, completed in 2011. That meeting and event space is used for nature center programs and is rented out for groups and parties. A new semi-permeable parking lot is also nearing completion. There are plans for an addition to be built onto the education building, but fundraising for that phase of construction has not yet begun, Freed says.

The 1850s barn lends the property a historic air, but the marsh itself is even more of a time capsule. Most of the land is part of the Houserville Archaeological District, which contains prehistoric Native American sites. According to the Millbrook Marsh brochure, a hearth found on site was dated to about 745 years A.D., plus or minus 80 years.

Program coordinator Mandy Maguffey delights in such history and aims to introduce the community to it.

“I am very passionate about the native cultures,” says Maguffey, who began at the nature center as an intern three years ago and was hired as the program coordinator in December. She and Freed are the only full-time staff members. “I started a program in the fall called Native Knowledge, all about how they used the native plants to live their lives.”

Classes like Native Knowledge are held throughout the year, based on the seasons and the varying expertise and interests of nature center staff as well as seasonal interns, who come from Penn State as well as Lock Haven, Slippery Rock and other nearby colleges.

In January, Maguffey led the center’s first Winter Trails Day, which coincided with a national Trails Day. Mild weather contributed to the “fantastic” turnout, Maguffey says. “We had 55 people come out for a one-hour walk through the marsh,” she says. “I was very surprised [by that kind of turnout], but I think everybody got what they came out here for.”

The center hosts summer camps, programs for homeschoolers and Scout troops, as well as family programs and annual events. Its Historic Harvest Festival celebrated its 13th year this past fall, and the 10th annual Earth Day Birthday went off without a hitch in April — after being postponed a week due to a snowy forecast on the previously scheduled date.

Freed says her staff works closely with area volunteers and organizations to give the community a diverse offering of classes and programs. Local artist Susan Nicholas Gephart teaches a weeklong plein air painting class for teenagers at the marsh in the summer.

“I’m very much an environmentalist; I appreciate nature and I want to preserve it,” says Gephart. “So Millbrook Marsh is the natural place for me to go and make a connection with young people in nature.” Gephart provides her students with a watercolor palette and station they can take out into the marsh to use. She says having direct access to the beauty of the wetlands from the safety of the boardwalk makes it a perfect place to paint.

“You don’t have to worry about deer ticks and poison ivy,” she says.“Millbrook Marsh Willow” is one of many watercolors plein air artist Susan Nicholas Gephart has created on-site. Photo courtesy Susan Nicholas Gephart.“Millbrook Marsh Willow” is one of many watercolors plein air artist Susan Nicholas Gephart has created on-site. Photo courtesy Susan Nicholas Gephart.

That aspect of the park is what keeps people returning to the quiet little oasis just down the hill from the university and Mount Nittany Medical Center. Open from dawn till dusk seven days a week, there are plenty of residents who frequent the trails. Hospital staffers in their scrubs can often be seen walking the boardwalks during their midday breaks, and joggers, dog walkers and bird watchers are regulars as well.

“It’s a little piece of wilderness in this large town, and you don’t get that very often,” Freed says. “People think you need to go hike out into the woods somewhere. But you can come here on your lunch break.”
2017 will be the park’s 20th year of operation, and there will be much to celebrate. Brooks is planning to nominate Millbrook Marsh and its surroundings as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Treaty, the oldest of the modern global intergovernmental environmental agreements.
“That would be very cool,” he says.

But the marsh is already receiving recognition for its efforts to preserve the environment. The nature center is the 2016 recipient of the Pennsylvania Parks and Rec Society’s Green Park Award, given to a state public park that demonstrates sustainable and green practices.

“That’s very exciting for us,” says Freed, who was on hand to accept the award at a special ceremony in April, along with representatives from the Centre Region Council of Governments and the CRPR Authority.

Lanagan has been busy voluntarily planting a pollinator garden near the park’s entrance, which will further enhance the park’s wildlife, not to mention give a boost to the nearby community starter gardens.

“If you increase the pollinators, your food will increase. But also will the bird population; everything increases if you start at that basic level. The bottom of the food chain is really important,” says Lanagan, who assures visitors that bees in a pollinator garden are not aggressive and pose no threat to those wandering through it, which they are, of course, welcome to do. “We’re hoping to attract bees, hummingbirds and monarchs.”

Lanagan’s dedication is matched by that of Freed and Maguffey, who are perfectly at home tending to Program Coordinator Mandy Maguffey and Nature Center Supervisor Melissa Freed are the only full-time staff members.Program Coordinator Mandy Maguffey and Nature Center Supervisor Melissa Freed are the only full-time staff of State College’s natural treasures.

“I see myself here for a long time,” Maguffey says, and Freed nods and smiles. She knew even before graduating from Penn State with a degree in agriculture and environmental education that she didn’t want to start off in a traditional classroom setting. “I just love the outdoors, and the whole environmental interpretation is something I was looking for,” Freed says.

She found it at Millbrook Marsh, and slowly but surely, everyone else is finding the park, too. •SCM

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