Dan Kunkle

August 16, 1954 -

Years ago, you might not have looked to the barren slopes of the Kittatinny Ridge in Lehigh Gap, Pennsylvania for inspiration. Years of pollution from a nearby zinc smelting plant in Palmerton killed nearly all the vegetation, leaving a brown, rocky wasteland. Yet Dan Kunkle, a high school science teacher at the time, saw the area’s potential. It was his vision to restore the land and make it a place for research, education, and recreation for children and adults of all ages.

Beginning in the early 2000s, Dan began making that dream a reality. Dan is the founder and executive director of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. He and countless volunteers worked with staff from Viacom to plant zinc-tolerant native warm season grasses on the slopes of the ridge. They turned the 400-plus-acre location into the only Superfund site to be restored to an environmental education center, which houses a “green” education building and 756-acres of wildlife refuge that includes ponds, bottomland wetlands, a 2.5-mile riparian zone, forested slopes, cliffs, and savanna at the higher elevations, along with miles of trails. To see a video of the site after restoration, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0fVnlcVWf0.

Dan has been recognized multiple times for his environmental successes. In 2015, he received the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) Partner of the Year, Mid-Atlantic Region Award, for his advocacy, education, and stewardship work along the Kittatinny Ridge. Dan has worked with the Audubon Society and ATC to prevent the construction of windmills and other developments on the mountain that would be detrimental to hiking and bird watching. In 2016, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate from Muhlenberg College.

Photo by permission of Lehigh Gap Nature Center.