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Earth Day: Celebrating From the Ground Up

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by Mike Candelaria

In 1883, the earth was largely very good to the United States. The production of corn, wheat, cotton and livestock were far greater than in any other part of the world, according to national archives. That same year, Stetson University was founded as Florida’s first private university.

Coincidence? Perhaps not.

As Earth Day is celebrated globally on April 22 and essentially during the days before and after by more than 1 billion people in 192 countries (unofficially making it the largest civic observance in the world) Stetson University has stake to an environmental claim. While the nonprofit Earth Day Network, which dates back to the first Earth Day in 1970, calls upon citizens, educators, corporate leaders, governments and global organizations to take environmental action, Stetson has always done its part.

Earth Day at Stetson

Bekah Burket, a 2013 graduate, presents a natural plant tie dye to a young visitor during an Earth Day celebration at Gillespie Museum. (Photo: Peter May)

In fact, such resolve is revealed right in the university’s Mission Statement under Global Citizenship, encompassing “commitments to community engagement, diversity and inclusion, environmental responsibility, and social justice.”

“Earth Day is something we use symbolically to reflect on [environmental efforts] and reach out to the community to help people think about being more environmentally conscious. But we do this all year around,” says J. Anthony Abbott, Ph.D., an associate professor in Environmental Science and Studies at Stetson.

Earth Day celebrations on campus clearly are special. Events begin April 10 and continue through May 1. (See list of events). On Earth Day itself, the Gillespie Museum will host the Earth Day Environmental Forum, a discussion of a new project to establish a seed library on campus. Three existing student groups — Hatter Harvest, Stetson Beekeeping and Team Sandhill — teamed up to collect, grow and share seeds of heirloom and organic vegetables, significant pollination plants, and native Florida wildflowers. First-year students in the Honors program inspired the project, and “cultural credits” were available to students. (Cultural credits are intended to enable students to more fully embrace the university’s mission and values; events are scheduled outside the classroom that provide “substantial intellectual or cultural value.”)

Many of the events are organized and coordinated through the Gillespie Museum under the supervision of Karen Cole, Ph.D., director of the museum, which features a geologic collection of more than 15,000 minerals, rocks and fossils that is one of the oldest and largest in the Southeast.

Earth Day at Stetson

Long-leaf pines and other trees are planted as part of the Volusia Sandhill Ecosystem restoration project behind Rinker Environmental Learning Center.

“The Earth Day celebration at the Gillespie Museum…is a showcase of some of the student organizations and environmental research and programming that takes place throughout the year,” says Cole. “Once a year, it’s important for all of us — on campus and in the community — to examine our commitment to Earth, to living sustainability.”

Walking the Walk

At least equally impressive are the numbers that quantify Stetson’s year-round environmental commitment, along with the campus initiatives that, as Abbott describes it, are “walking the walk.”

Nearly 100 percent of the campus is irrigated with reclaimed wastewater from the City of DeLand’s reclaimed water system. Once the water hydrates the campus landscape, it seeps through the sand to replenish the Florida aquifer, the state’s largest source of fresh water. Meanwhile, native trees, flowers, shrubs and ground covers, which require little or no irrigation, are typically employed to further limit the use of natural resources.

In addition, work continues on establishing an institute to focus on water sustainability through research, interdisciplinary teaching and community engagement. Stetson’s location is uniquely suited for the study of water issues, according to Karen Ryan, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She points to several nearby freshwater springs, the neighboring Atlantic shore and the St. Johns River, along with more than 1,500 square miles of conservation lands.

With the goal of diverting as much material from the landfill as possible, Stetson’s recycling program is difficult to miss on campus. Recycles signs, update boards and bins are omnipresent. Between fiscal years 2012 and 2013, efforts amounted to almost 207,000 pounds of cardboard, plastics, metal and other products being recycled.

Similarly, Stetson is reducing its carbon footprint. Studies by Abbott and his students show a pattern of decline in carbon dioxide emissions.

“My main activities are teaching students about environmental themes in their thinking processes but also in putting that to practice here in university laboratories,” notes Abbott, adding that much of the work is done under the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, an initiative to help eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions from specified campus operations and promote related education.

Environmentalism Ingrained

In summer 2011, restoration began on the Volusia Sandhill Ecosystem to create a teaching landscape on a one-acre, dry, sandy slope of the DeLand Ridge, located behind the Rinker Environmental Learning Center on campus and part of Gillespie Museum grounds. Restoration is ongoing with a pollination garden, wiregrass areas plus plantings of greeneyes, coreopsis, pawpaw, blazing star, gopher apples and other native sandhill species. An outdoor classroom and living museum are taking shape here, providing opportunities for environmental education about a rapidly disappearing ecosystem that previously was pervasive across the Southeast.

Earth Day at Stetson

Jessie Bosma plants a turkey oak outside the Rinker Environmental Learning Center.

Last year, the Arbor Day Foundation named Stetson as a 2014 Tree Campus USA, in recognition of effective community forestry management and a healthy outdoor environment. It was the fourth consecutive year Stetson had received the distinction.

“Being good stewards of our environment is a Stetson University value,” said Al Allen, associate vice president of Facilities Management, about the award. “Part of our commitment is to plant only native trees on campus, increase the number of trees on campus and care for them. We have planted in excess of 1,000 native trees on campus since 2010. The trees add beauty to the campus, provide shade and assist in our efforts to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as trees naturally absorb it.”

Dating back to 2003, the Eugene M. and Christine Lynn Business Center became the first building in Florida to be certified as a green building by the U.S. Green Building Council under its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. Stetson was an especially early adopter, with the LEED program beginning only three years earlier. Today, LEED projects are responsible for diverting more 80 million tons of waste from landfills.

A couple more national statistics — just in honor of Earth Day: Revenues for electric power generation industries that use renewable energy resources increased 49 percent from 2007 to 2012 ($9.8 billion), according to economic data released last fall by the U.S. Census Bureau. Also, the total of wind, geothermal, biomass, solar and other electric power generation business establishments more than doubled from 2007 to 2012 (697 businesses).

Earth Day, a simple idea 45 years ago, is working. Reportedly, the movement was spawned from a massive oil spill in waters near Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969. Earth Day arrived the same year the U.S. put a man on the moon, the country’s population reached 200 million, and Simon & Garfunkel first sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The movement took off, embraced by the nation and the world.

History suggests that Stetson embraced the concept far earlier. Current events (and initiatives) indicate such thinking is alive and well. Environmental Professor Abbott says it best: “We try to make every day Earth Day.”

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