With rising concerns over climate change, leaders all over the country have begun to speak out about sustainability efforts and the environment.
Not all leaders are politicians or middle-aged folks dressed in suits, though. Several young people from central Pennsylvania area have taken action and shown commitment to environmental protection and advocacy.
We highlight several below, offering a glimpse into the next generation of environmental stewards.
Zoe Roane-Hopkins was just about to do some yardwork in her parents’ front lawn in Camp Hill as I arrived to meet her. She was ready to plant native coreopsis cultivars in the perfect spot she had picked out—just beneath another native species, a white oak tree.
Just graduated from Penn State with a degree in landscape architecture, Roane-Hopkins learned that a lawn is an “ecological desert,” an unnatural, manicured place where native plants and wildlife are not sustained.
She found this alarming as her parents—state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources employees—taught her to value natural ecosystems.
“It became a really important part of how I saw the world, and I want to make sure that doesn’t get taken away from people,” she said.
For her senior thesis project at Schreyer Honors College at Penn State, Roane-Hopkins created an educational guide called “Lawn Gone Native” for yard owners to plant native gardens that encourage ecological restoration, in place of barren lawns.
Though lawns sink some carbon and provide open spaces for gathering, they require much more maintenance than native gardens, consume more resources, and fail to provide habitat for wildlife.
“I learned how vital it is to have these natural areas that keep us alive by filtering air and water, and people just don’t understand how necessary it is,” she said. “The cool thing is, you can get people to change the way they see the lawn and to understand that they don’t have to compromise their lifestyle for ecologically supportive landscapes.”
Besides serving as a home for wildlife, native gardens provide food, support pollinators, filter and clean contaminated water, and maintain deeper root systems that reduce soil erosion and runoff. Roane-Hopkins explained that natural spaces are vital for our survival, and she wants to educate people about how they can help themselves and their environment, just by planting natives.
“People planting native plants in yards isn’t just that action,” she said. “It’s also them thinking about how they are actually able to influence something, and they get a deeper appreciation for their immediate surroundings.”
Roane-Hopkins attends the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in industrial design.
Noah Yeich has always had an appreciation for the outdoors, something his mother cultivated in him when he was young. He put this appreciation into action in a recent project at an important bird habitat in Harrisburg.
Yeich was visiting a park near Pittsburgh when he saw a chimney swift tower and was inspired to build one himself. A recent graduate of Middletown Area High School, he thought it would be perfect for his Eagle Scout project.
“It combined my love for the outdoors with my love of carpentry,” he said.
Yeich took three months working every weekend to construct the tower at Wildwood Park near I-81 in Harrisburg. At 16 feet tall, the hollow wooden tower provides a site for chimney swifts to nest during their annual spring migration from South America to eastern North America. The bottom part of the structure is a kiosk hung with educational signs explaining the tower’s function and ecological contributions.
Yeich led friends and family members through the construction process, beginning with the logistical challenge of getting materials to the site and extending to laborious jobs like digging the foundation and mixing concrete. He unveiled the structure in April, accompanied by local licensed bird bander, Sandra Lockerman, who shared how Yeich’s project positively contributed to two decades of ongoing bird research.
Chimney swifts are known for their aerial demonstrations during migration, when enormous clouds of birds gather near a chimney and take off in an orchestrated flurry. These flurries consume millions of insects, which prune populations across their entire range. The bird naturally roosts in caves and hollowed out trees, constructing nests with its gluey saliva. When the human population expanded rapidly during colonization, the bird began to nest in chimneys, which is how it got its name. As chimneys across the continent have fallen into disuse, swift populations have suffered.
Yeich was glad to improve the bird’s habitat and thought the structure was well-placed at the park, adjacent to the Nature Center. He said that many people stopped to ask questions while he was building it, and he hopes the interest continues.
“I hope a pair of chimney swifts find it, and I hope it educates the people who see it when they visit the park.” Yeich said.
Noah Yeich attends Thaddeus Stevens College in Lancaster, studying cabinet and furniture making.
I was lucky to get in touch with Nick Silvis for this story as he spends a lot of time outside, out of cell service area. Though just graduated from Hershey High School, he has been active in conservation for years.
“I’ve always been an outdoorsy kid, and I started learning about the environment when I was little,” he said. “I fell in love with the outdoors, and I never looked back.”
He enjoys hiking and kayaking, but his love for the environment culminates in the work he does to protect it.
Silvis has spent the last few summers in the Wildlife Leadership Academy’s field school, where students focus on a single species to learn about larger issues of the ecosystem and its conservation. As a conservation ambassador, he learned about the biology, ecology and management of the ruffed grouse—the Keystone state bird—and helped evaluate a local habitat for its livability.
He is also a long-time volunteer at Manada Conservancy in Hummelstown “just for fun,” where he helps facilitate their annual native plant sale and assisted in drafting an environmental impact statement for a local property they manage. Silvis was one of three recipients of the conservancy’s 2019 Environmental Achievement Award, which recognizes local high school seniors who have contributed to environmental stewardship and protection.
His passion for the outdoors also brings him out of the field and into government offices. Silvis sees many possibilities for bridging the gap between scientists and conservationists and government and business policy. He explained how this is vitally important if we are going to enact change.
“You can do all the science that you want, but without someone to interpret it or explain it, no change is ever going to occur,” he said.
Silvis has already been working to bridge that gap.
This past year, he was one of 20 student members of the Governor’s Youth Advisory Council for Hunting, Fishing and Conservation. The council met to discuss environmental challenges in Pennsylvania counties. Members then traveled to Washington, D.C., twice to discuss actions to protect the state’s environment and wildlife with congressional representatives.
“I enjoy politics and the inner workings of the government, and I feel that’s where change can occur on a wide scale,” Silvis said. “It’s a cool avenue to explore.”
Nick Silvis is attending Gettysburg College, pursuing a double major in environmental studies and public policy.