By Sandy Long
UPPER DELAWARE - Two of the top conservation organizations in the Upper Delaware River region are soaring with the success of their first year as partners in the protection of eagles and their habitat—an initiative that combined the forces of the Delaware Highlands Conservancy (DHC) and the Eagle Institute (EI) in February 2012 and has resulted in the most exciting eagle season ever.
The merger has allowed members, volunteers—and even the eagles flying above the region’s rivers and forests—to share the message that eagles and people thrive when the lands and waters upon which they depend are healthy and clean.
With the recent conclusion of the winter eagle-watching season, the Conservancy is reporting outstanding numbers of both eagles and visitors who traveled to the region. Thousands of visitors from all over the world enjoyed approximately 1,300 eagle sightings—including the record for the year, 19 at once at the Mongaup Reservoir in Sullivan County, NY—over December, January, and February.
The resultant eco-tourism provides a welcome economic boost during the winter months when income from outdoor activities typically decreases. The Conservancy’s guided bus tours have all been filled, with tourists also booking local lodging and enjoying meals at area dining establishments.
Equally important, the merger has allowed for greater opportunity to educate a broader portion of the public about eagles and their welfare, along with the role that land conservation plays in protecting essential habitat.
Reflecting on the past year, EI Founder Lori McKean is impressed with how the merger has played out. "When we first started talking with our colleagues at the DHC about the pros and cons of a potential merger, I don't think any of us could have imagined how successful this would be," she said. "The transition was amazingly smooth, thanks to the enthusiasm of both organizations and the passion of the people who really wanted to make this work.
"The partnership has taken both organizations to new heights. We have been able to leverage our resources, expand our capacity, blend our volunteers, share our knowledge and start down a new road together."
What that road means for the future is promising indeed. "Programmatically the Eagle Institute had been shifting from species protection to habitat protection. It doesn't do any good to help bring back a species without making sure it has the habitat to survive," asserts McKean. "Merging with the premier land conservation group in this region is going to help ensure there is healthy habitat for the eagles to thrive, reproduce and winter over."
Love for the Land Increases
Volunteer Coordinator Patricia Diness works with approximately 50 volunteers for the organization throughout the year. "Eagle-watching brings a new audience to the work of the Conservancy, and volunteers help the public make the connection between habitat preservation and its positive impact on wildlife species such as eagles," she says.
Sighting eagles ignites awareness of the need for stewardship. "When people see a live eagle in the wild, it really sparks their interest," notes Diness. "Seeing families with children getting away from computers and experiencing a real living version of the national emblem is exciting."
Ruth Randone agrees. A five-year EI volunteer who now also contributes time to help the Conservancy in tasks like mailings, Randone can be found at the Conservancy’s Lackawaxen Winter Field Office near the Roebling Bridge, a facility that is available through another successful partnership with the National Park Service.
"Eagle tourism is booming," she says, noting that she just spoke with visitors from Africa and India. "People come with various levels of understanding, from the nine-year-old boy from Israel who knew all about Rachel Carson and the impact of DDT on eagles, to those who don’t realize that a bald eagle doesn’t sport a white head until it reaches nearly 5 years of age. It’s great that an organization exists that wants to maintain pristine waters and land for eagles and for people—forever."
Mitch Opresnick, a seven-year EI volunteer who mans a spotting scope on the bank of the Delaware River near the Zane Grey Museum in Lackawaxen, PA, says he’s seen an increase in visitors from all over the world, too.
"They don’t realize how many eagles live here, roughly every 5 miles in either direction, with 18 nesting pairs from Hankins to Port Jervis, NY," he says. "I try to explain the role that habitat plays and what that means for humans, too. If the eagles are here, that indicates that the habitat is good—both for eagles and for humans."
In assessing the many successes of the past year, the Conservancy also celebrates an updated website, complete with a detailed "Eagles in Our Region" section; an additional nearly 1,000 acres of protected forestlands, including wildlife habitats and clean water sources in PA and NY, bringing the total to over 14,000 protected acres; and the launch of a new Green Lodging Partnership connecting guests at local sustainable lodgings with protecting the region’s beautiful natural resources.
"As our eagle neighbors remind us, wildlife—and people like us—thrive when the land and waters upon which they depend are healthy and clean," says Currier. "This drives our efforts for the future. We’re really excited about the huge potential."
McKean agrees. "We love the idea of educating people about how they can help make sure the forests and waters stay healthy, because it's not just good for the eagles. It's good for the people too."
Volunteers are welcome, especially those who enjoy the outdoors and interacting with other people. Training is provided and tasks range from monitoring properties to leading hikes to assisting with office tasks and gardening or maintenance at Conservancy facilities.
www.DelawareHighlands.org, call (570) 226-3164 or (845) 583-1010 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Contact Diness at email@example.com for information on volunteering.