Lehigh Gap director reflects on tenure
The director of Lehigh Gap Nature Center will retire at the end of this year, passing the mantle to two center employees.
Dan Kunkle said when he steps down from his position this month, Chad Schwartz, the center’s current director of science and education, and Brian Birchak, its director of communication, will both take up the role as co-directors.
“It’s important in an organization like this that a founding director doesn’t hang on too long,” Kunkle said, though his tenure with the 750-acre wide organization he founded spans nearly 20 years.
“We’ve been working hard on this transition to new leadership, and we think it’s valuable for me to retire while I can still help the new people run the center.”
Kunkle will take a position on the board of directors of Lehigh Gap Nature Center and will retain the title of director emeritus.
Back in the early 2000s, the land the center now calls home was more like a wasteland — part of a 1983 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site that had been ravaged by pollution from New Jersey Zinc.
Kunkle, alongside Bob Hoopes, a board member, recently reminisced on the challenges and triumphs faced when taking the center from dream to reality during Lehigh Gap’s second presentation in its 2019-2020 speaker series.
Stories from the gap
The Lehigh Gap Nature Center is a dream realized for Kunkle, a former high school biology teacher. But establishing the organization was no easy feat, Kunkle and Hoopes recalled one night in October.
When Kunkle invited Hoopes to join the board in the early 2000s, the team still had to locate land for the center and find a way to pay for it.
Kunkle eventually discovered three parcels, but encountered another issue: One of the properties — a 14-acre lot — was limited to residential use due to a deed restriction.
Kunkle tried convincing the seller to lift the restriction with no success. In fact, the runaround almost made him abandon the project altogether. “Bob, I can’t do this anymore,” Kunkle told Hoopes one night over the phone.
Hoopes wouldn’t accept that.
“If you quit tonight,” he responded, “the dream is over. If you can stay in this one more day, the dream stays alive. If you can stay in this the day after that, the dream stays alive.”
Kunkle kept pushing long enough to hear Hoopes tell that story more than a decade later, under the cover of Lehigh Gap’s Osprey House.
Through loans, donations, fundraising, grants and a partnership with CBS Corporation — the party deemed responsible for remediating the Superfund site — Kunkle and the Lehigh Gap team were able to acquire the land and, soon after, pay it off in full.
It was revegetated, and in 2010, the Lehigh Gap Nature Center hosted its grand opening.
“The rest is history,” as Hoopes put it.
The fruits of his labor
Like a true naturalist, Kunkle hopes to spend his newfound free time exploring the world. “I’m 65 now,” he said. “It’s time for me to start enjoying what I’ve tried to protect all my life.” He hopes to travel, but when asked where, struggled to narrow it down to just one place.
“It’s too big a list,” Kunkle said.