New facilities help Shaver’s Creek educate the next generation of conservationists
Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center is situated in a tranquil setting so removed from the hubbub of a bustling campus and ongoing construction, it’s easy to forget that this nature-lover’s mecca is a mere 20-minute drive from downtown State College. The nature center, in Petersburg, is home to eight hiking trails, a 72-acre lake, and more than 40 resident animals, in addition to the countless species of wild animals and native plants living in the surrounding 7,000 wooded acres of Penn State’s Experimental Forest.
While the devoted employees who work there are certainly loyal stewards of the environment, there’s something even more central to their core purpose than the animals and grounds in their care: People. “Connecting people to people and people to nature” is the Shaver’s Creek motto, and, as part of Penn State Outreach, the nature center strives to accomplish this connection through education.
College students, young professionals, and the community at large all have a wide variety of opportunities to learn and connect at the center, through more than 35 for-credit Penn State courses, youth programs such as summer camps, and special events that include the Enchanted Halloween Trail in the fall and the Maple Harvest Festival in the spring. Shaver’s Creek is also open daily for the public to visit for free.
With an estimated 60,000 people using the site each year, the original visitors center eventually became too small to accommodate the increasing demand for the its programs and events, leading to the first major renovation and expansion of Shaver’s Creek facilities since it opened in 1976.
“As our programs have been growing and growing, we started realizing we were really crammed into this 1930s building built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). We loved it, but we knew if we wanted to keep growing, we really needed some more staff space and more indoor space,” says Shaver’s Creek marketing communications director Justin Raymond. “Penn State recognized that, and Outreach supported us financially. We also had donors who were really connected to us that wanted to make it happen, and grants and our membership program helped to contribute to it. Eventually, it all pulled together.”
Several years of careful planning ensured that the changes would reflect the best practices in the field, says animal care program director Jason Beale.
“Shaver’s Creek has been around long enough that we were kind of in the first wave of nature centers,” Beale says. “I think for a lot of us, this has been an opportunity for us to say, ‘Hey, we were really part of this vanguard, but let’s pause and find out where the movement is now. What do we need to do to not just stay relevant, but to help kind of push the field forward?’”
‘Herp Island’ and birds of prey
Phase 1 of the construction began in the fall of 2016, and in September 2018 Shaver’s Creek opened the doors of its newly renovated and expanded center to the public. The second phase, including new enclosures for the Raptor Center as well as a new upper classroom building, wrapped up in February 2019, with just a few finishing touches remaining to be completed.
The expansion includes an addition of new office space for 28 full-time employees and a fluctuating number of interns, grad assistants, and volunteers. At the opposite end of the facility, the spacious new Hamer Classroom features public restrooms, a kitchen, and an expansive outdoor deck.
Using wood from local trees for the structure and decorative elements, the new additions maintain the rustic charm of the original lodge, which still remains largely intact in between. The wheelchair-accessible main entrance now leads to a renovated bookstore/gift shop, which opens to the focal point of this space – the new Litzinger Herpetology Center, affectionately nicknamed “Herp Island.” This custom-made exhibit area was designed by the experts at Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland as a central place to display and care for the Shaver’s Creek resident reptiles and amphibians.
According to Beale, the display’s snakes, salamanders, turtles, and frogs are all there for one reason: to educate people.
“One thing I like to do is try to dispel myths that people may have. For example, a lot of people may only think of rattlesnakes as dangerous nuisances in the forest. Here, we have the opportunity to show them a different narrative,” he says.
Beale takes the same approach with the stars of the show at Shaver’s Creek: the resident birds of prey. The new Raptor Center is located up a small hill behind the main building. Fourteen new enclosures have been thoughtfully constructed for the raptors, with southern exposures to capture the sunlight all day, thick walls on the north ends to protect from cold winds, and special ramps leading to perches for the birds who may not be able to fly well because of disabilities.
All of the birds, which include owls, hawks, vultures, eagles, and falcons, are found naturally in central Pennsylvania and are considered to be non-releasable, mainly due to permanent injuries such as missing eyes or amputated wings – but, it’s important to note, the center only accepts animals from approved animal rehabilitation facilities; they cannot take in injured animals from the general public. According to Beale, under the care of Shaver’s Creek, many of the animals live to five or six times their natural life expectancy. Tussey, the golden eagle, and Charles, the bald eagle, are both 28 years old. A barred owl that first came to Shaver’s Creek in 1989 is believed to be the oldest living barred owl anywhere.
The Raptor Center is open to the public every day, and at 3 p.m., Shaver’s Creek staff members work with the birds, weighing them, feeding them, and training them to be voluntary participants in their own care. These training sessions are interactive, offering a fun way for visitors to learn about raptors and their natural habitat. On weekends from April through November, the Meet the Creek program takes the interaction even further, offering different lessons each week.
"It’s an opportunity for people to see animals up closer; the goal is to see what is going on out in the natural world that we can teach about through our animals,” Beale says. “We really encourage people to come back throughout the season, see some different things, learn some different things, and dispel some more myths. People think vultures are disgusting creatures, but when you actually see the vultures out exploring, working with their enrichment and things, you learn that these are really intelligent creatures, and they’re doing us an ecological service. When we see that bird on the side of the road, they’re getting rid of rabies, getting rid of anthrax, getting rid of botulism. We should celebrate these creatures.
“I like to think of our job, if we do it well, as getting people on the first step of the ladder of engagement,” he says. “When people come here, I want them to go home and say, ‘Oh wow, we can compost at home, or we can feed the birds, or we can put up a screech owl box in our yard, or we can go to the hawk watching count. …’ We want them to take some kind of action and then ideally get involved, and that’s how we grow that next generation of conservationists.”
Creek Journals and beyond
Shaver’s Creek makes it easy for anyone to take action through Citizen Science projects, many involving reporting on bird sightings. Another way to get involved is to apply to participate in the unique Creek Journals project, which was conceived by a Penn State Altoona professor of English and environmental studies, Ian Marshall, and involves observing and writing about eight specific sites on the grounds of Shaver’s Creek.
According to Marshall, “The idea is to get a whole bunch of people going to the same sites over 100 years and to see how people from different academic backgrounds see the same place. How do people from different regions of the country see the same place? And, of course, how does a place change over time?”
Some well-known nature writers have participated in the project over the past decade, with the highlights published in a book, Reading Shaver’s Creek: Ecological Reflections from an Appalachian Forest, edited by Marshall and published by Penn State Press in 2018.
“We hope to get more people to come out and contribute – maybe write some poems or even take some photographs. There’s kind of an open invitation for everyone to participate,” Raymond says.
Beale hopes that projects like these help to expand people’s perceptions about the center.
“Because of the summer camp and some of the other programs we do, a lot of people think of Shaver’s Creek as a kids’ place. That’s part of what we do, but we want to make people aware that we’re also a place for adults and a place for college students,” he says.
Approximately 1,500 Penn State students enroll in classes at Shaver’s Creek each year. The SEED (Student Engagement and Experiential Discovery) semester program appeals to many students interested in environmental education or recreation and park management. Students can also earn college credit for doing things like helping to lead fifth-graders from underserved populations who take part in the Outdoor School program, taking a team-building facilitation course, or planning and implementing the Maple Harvest Festival community event, set for March 23-24 this year.
The festival is a family-friendly event expected to draw 2,000 to 3,000 community members. Penn State students dress up in 19th-century period costumes and show visitors how to tap trees, boil sap, and make maple syrup. Entertainment will include raptor and reptile shows, live music, and storytellers, with volunteers preparing and serving pancake-and-sausage breakfasts. Tickets must be purchased in advance through the Shaver’s Creek website.
“It’s a nice example of how Penn State students end up interacting with the community at large,” says Raymond. “We’re a community-centered nature center, but the engine that’s powering it is oftentimes that connection to Penn State students.”
Students also lead the popular AURORA orientation program, a five-day backpacking trip for incoming Penn State freshmen.
“We end up hiring probably 30 students or recent grads. They all get paid and it’s professional experience for them as they’re helping to teach their incoming peers not only how to survive for a week outdoors, but also things about Penn State and what they can expect,” Raymond says.
The AURORA program has become well-known on the national level, with other universities seeking to replicate the model.
“We really serve as a resource for other people in the field. We pride ourselves on that,” Beale says.
“The overarching view of the center is, how do we model being the best kind of nature experience we can be, but also a professional home for young professionals who are having these experiences for the first time in their life?” Raymond adds. “It’s just really fostering that connection between Penn State students and visitors, giving them the best experience they can get. The whole site is sort of a reflection of that.”
Shaver’s Creek is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., February through mid-December. To learn more about the many programs and events offered at the center, visit shaverscreek.org.
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.