Reading Eagle, March 20, 2014

Reading Eagle, March 20, 2014

Reading Eagle

Land near Berks to be used for environmental learning

Saturday March 22, 2014 12:01 AM
By Laura Newberry  

Reading Eagle: Lauren A. Little | Ken Hamilton, left, executive director of the SAVE Alliance Foundation; Todd Hilsee, center, principal at Hilsee Real Estate Partnership, and Herbert C. Miller Jr., Upper Pottsgrove Township commissioner, at the property that will be used for an environmental education center. The site will be promoted to area school districts as a field trip destination and locale for long-term science projects.

For Boyertown High School teacher Rick Thomas, coming up with ways to get his environmental science students out of the classroom to touch, examine and learn from the earth isn’t always simple.

So when he heard of a nearby 17-acre parcel of land that’s the future site of an environmental education center, he saw potential.

Hands-on learning opportunities aren’t often feasible at the state parks and area watersheds that his classes visit, he said.

“If there was a center like that we would use it, I’m sure, pretty heavily,” Thomas added.

A partnership between the township, the former landowner and an environmental education organization has led to the preservation of the land in Upper Pottsgrove, Montgomery County, close to the Berks County line. The land will be used for a student-friendly center that will be promoted to area school districts as a field trip destination and locale for long-term science projects.

The land at Gilbertsville and Snyder Roads has been largely untouched, save a farmhouse that dates to the early 1800s.

Todd Hilsee, 53, a real estate broker in Souderton, Montgomery County, inherited the land from his parents. It’s been in his family since the 1950s.

After attempts to develop it amid the economic recession, Hilsee said he came to believe the best use for the land was educational.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, “and it deserved to be kept and saved from development.”

The farmhouse will be renovated and used as an educational resource center, Hilsee said, which will be free and open to the public.

The township bought the land for $400,000 in January with the help of a $146,000 grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, combined with money from an open-space fund, a tax revenue the township instituted through voter referendum in 2006.

Through an agreement with the township, the SAVE Alliance Foundation commonly known as The Alliance, will use the farmhouse as its headquarters.

The fledgling Montgomery County environmental group aims to provide educational resources to students. It also will maintain planned trails and outdoor classrooms.

Herbert C. Miller, Upper Pottsgrove Township commissioner and historian, said that he’s wanted to preserve the land for years, namely to connect Sprogles Run, an unfinished trail with a portion that runs through the grounds.

“We’ve been acknowledged for our aggressive view on this,” Miller said of local preservation efforts.

Ken Hamilton, SAVE executive director and a retired environmental science teacher, said the area was in need of an open space designated for educational use.

“Schools and communities are slowly losing the resources they need to do these kinds of big, visionary projects in which students lead,” he said. “Our foundation is hoping to fill in that gap.”

The land boasts a boulder field, a wide variety of fruit trees and rare species of native vegetation.

On-site, student-led initiatives could include creating a rain garden to reduce runoff, or organizing a recycling day with the help of the center’s resources, Hamilton said.

The nonprofit foundation will have a small paid staff that will plan programs to fit individual school district needs.

“The whole goal is to be able to do this at little or no cost to schools,” Hamilton said.

The SAVE Alliance Foundation, officially formed in December 2012, was inspired by a former organization of the same name.

Thomas said he has some projects in mind that could be carried out at the center, which is about 4 miles from Boyertown High School.

The teacher said he’s always wanted to conduct soil studies, which would require digging a 10- to 12-foot hole.

Students would then be able to examine layers of earth up close rather than in a textbook.

“The sky’s the limit, probably,” he said.

Contact Laura Newberry: 610-371-5081 or


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