Partnership Turning Former 4-H Camp into Field Campus for UB's Environmental Studies Program

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: October 29, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- An abandoned former 4-H camp in the woods of Sardinia in southern Erie County is well on its way to becoming a year-round, residential, environmental education center, thanks to a unique partnership between the University at Buffalo, Erie County and the not-for-profit environmental group Earth Spirit Educational Services Inc.

The goal of the partnership, known as The Woodlands Environmental Education Center, is to rebuild the camp's infrastructure, develop an environmental education program for schools, community groups and the general public, and create a field campus for UB's Environmental Studies Program, part of the Interdisciplinary Degree Programs in the College of Arts and Sciences.

A $200,000 grant provided earlier this year by the county Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry is being used for a variety of capital projects and equipment purchases at the site, says Sanford Geffner, coordinator of the Environmental Studies Program, who also serves as co-director of Earth Spirit.

The Woodlands partnership began back in 2001, Geffner says, when Larry Jasinski, county parks commissioner, approached Earth Spirit about expanding education opportunities at the Woodlands, a site consisting of 1,000 acres of county forest lands on Genesee Road in the Town of Sardinia. It had operated as a 4H camp from 1965-90, but had not been used since then. Earth Spirit then brought UB into the project because of the potential for the university's Environmental Studies Program, he adds.

The land features a variety of unique habitats, including northern hardwood forests, conifer plantations, a two-acre pond, two major creek systems, marshlands, beaver meadows and open fields, Geffner says, adding that with the diverse habitat comes rich wildlife, including fox, porcupine, coyote, skunk, black bear and birds of prey.

Under the partnership, Erie County continues to own and maintain the grounds and buildings; UB is working to develop a field campus for new coursework in environmental studies, conduct ongoing research projects and train interns, and Earth Spirit is developing environmental education courses for schools, the community and the general public, as well as administering all the programs offered at the Woodlands.

Geffner says that before any type of rehabilitation could be done at the Woodlands, seven UB interns worked with staff from Earth Spirit over the course of three semesters to develop a resource analysis and management plan for the site.

"We needed a clear sense of what was there, and a clear plan of how to manage those resources," he says.

All 10 of the camp's cabins were in such disrepair that they had to be razed, Geffner says. Over the past few years, the rebuilding process has been progressing gradually—a caretaker's cabin has been refurbished—with volunteers and prison work crews providing the labor and some donations coming in via Earth Spirit. But with receipt of the $200,000 county grant, the process has accelerated, with reconstruction work beginning on several buildings, including the dining hall, intern cabin and classroom facility, as well as construction of a dormitory and some primitive cabins for residential programs.

"When the buildings are reconstructed, we will be a unique facility in Western New York, not only because we'll have the resources to conduct a range of educational programs, but because we'll have a full-time staff to coordinate, plan and implement the programs with schools and a variety of community and public groups," Geffner says.

He hopes that by next summer the kitchen, dining and classroom facilities will be completed so that the camp will be functional at least on a day-use basis for school and community groups.

Geffner notes that Kevin Connors, an adjunct instructor in the School of Architecture and Planning, has been working on the rehabilitation projects, and may bring in a student group this fall or in the spring to help in the design of the new dormitory.

The creation of a field campus has been progressing as well, Geffner says. Two practicum courses—SSC 479/480—were offered for the first time in July 2003. During the first course, students are in residence at the Woodlands for a week-long, field-based teacher-training program covering field ecology, environmental analysis and conservation biology.

During the second course, which lasts for two weeks, students serve as environmental educators for two week-long summer ecology camps held for middle and high school students.

The UB students "become environmental educators immediately," Geffner says, noting that the course provides the students with "good, hard-core practical experience" as environmental educators. Environmental education is one 'track" of the recently revamped Environmental Studies curriculum, he says, with the other tracks being environmental policy and environmental resources.

A grant from Waste Management of Chaffee provided funding for the summer ecology camps, he says, enabling those students to attend the camps free of charge.

Geffner notes that he hopes to make the field campus available to other departments at UB, such as Geography and Biological Sciences, or any other program that might benefit from the field campus.

"Having a field campus for coursework and ongoing research projects can be extremely valuable to many disciplines," he says.