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Conservation Conversation promotes sustainability through hope and effort

Purdue Fort Wayne’s Environmental Resources Center invites the community to participate in its annual Conservation Conversation Thursday, October 26.

As one of PFW’s Centers of Excellence, its mission is to promote the understanding and conservation of the natural resources of the region through scientific research, educational opportunities and outreach.

WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the evolution of the center with its director, Bruce Kingsbury, the multi-faceted purpose of this all-day event, and how its theme — Pathways to Progress — encourages hope for the quality of life in our region.

Event Information:

PFW’s Environmental Resource Center’s Conservation Conversation: Pathways to Progress
International Ballroom, Walb Student Union, Purdue University Fort Wayne
Thursday, October 26th, 2023
9:30 a.m. to 8:000 p.m.

Find ticket packages and more information at PFW's Environmental Resource Center's website.

Julia Meek: Bruce Kingsbury, welcome.

Bruce Kingsbury: Hi there.

Julia Meek: Now you've had 20 years in the Environmental Resources Center business, and the last few have been spent at your brand new building, which you opened in 2019. Before we discuss your latest offering, would you remind us of the Environmental Re sources Center's mission?

Bruce Kingsbury: Sure, the ERC's mission is to promote the understanding and conservation of our natural resources. To elaborate on that, we do have a little bit of a regional focus.

And we fulfill our mission through research on animals and plants and their habitats by promoting opportunities for students to experience those same things, and out in the field. And then we also have a lot of outreach and engagement events.

Julia Meek: So it's a lot about the interaction with the community you're working in, living in? 

Bruce Kingsbury: I would say so. I think one of the things that's particular to what I do at the ERC is not only being in the Ivory Tower and doing research on imperiled animals, and that kind of thing, which is the research side of what I do, but I've always been really aware of how important it is to convey what we learned to people and get them engaged as stakeholders and show them value and provide them with the resources so that they understand what the challenges are and what we might do about them.

Julia Meek: And you're taking it to the level of sharing the responsibility, sharing it all with the community, then?

Bruce Kingsbury: Indeed.

Julia Meek: Now how is that new space taking shape? What new possibilities and programs has that space allowed you to realize, since it in 2019?

Bruce Kingsbury: We've been around for a couple of decades. But the space that we had before was not very large and we were really an intellectual hub more than a physical hub. So now we are a physical hub as well. And with the new building space that we started to occupy in 2019, we could do events in the building, we could host researchers, students, graduate students, undergraduate students, we have an area where people can conduct projects.

For example, we have an aquaponics facility that's under construction, we have other students who are working on an electric car, on battery packs, things like that. We host the USGS, the US Geological Survey has an office that we have, so they're our anchor tenant. And so there's just a lot of things we can do with that space that we couldn't do before. So it's it's been really cool.

And then add to that, that we also have grounds around the building. So we've put a lot of effort into landscaping around the building to display what people can do with native plants, how they can support pollinators, and birds and things like that, so it's alive around the building as well.

Julia Meek: And really interacting with everything and everyone, it sounds like.

Bruce Kingsbury: Yeah, it's all it's all about the interactions, for sure.

Julia Meek: And up next on the horizon, then is your annual Conservation Conversation, which is entitled Pathways to Progress. Now, this is by design an action and Interaction packed day to be sure, Bruce, so just where will that pathway be taking your participants on that day?

Bruce Kingsbury: So the Conservation Conversation has been around for several years, we got a good start before COVID and then we kind of got shut down there, but we're back at it. But always the mission has been that we get people talking to one another. We try to bring professionals and the general public together for conversations and the pathways to progress concept for us this time is trying to provide not only information about what the challenges are, but also what we might do about it.

And we're going after a variety of different realms, be at local, be at large scale, like what do we do with the waste that we produce, as well as thinking inspirationally about how people can approach the challenges before them. And all of it is about conversing about sustainability and about the environment.

It is a challenge when you're working with these kinds of things, to just think that it's hopeless, that there's really nothing that can be done. And so what we're trying to do is talk about what the challenges are, find hope and then also find pathways to progress.

Julia Meek: Real direct, address the situation and do something about it.

Bruce Kingsbury: Right. What can we do about it, not just be upset about it, but do something.

Julia Meek: Take if forward. In fact, your keynote speakers support efforts to protect vulnerable habitats and Indiana's native plant ecosystems. Why that specific focus within the sustainability concept? Why now, the plants and you know, that nitty gritty part of our environment?

Bruce Kingsbury: Well the two keynote speakers we have are really coming into this from different directions. Jesse Kharbanda is the former executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. He has led a lot of initiatives on things like social and environmental justice. He's going to be somebody to help us frame the day and get us thinking about the challenges that we have.

Then we have Michael Homoya, at the end of the day to help sort of ease us out of working hard over the day and have him talk about Indiana, the Hoosier State, and what beautiful things we have out there and hidden treasures. So he'll have lots of nice pictures and be a very informed speaker at the end of the day.

And then of course, we have a slate of speakers in between speaking on a wide variety of topics in 20 minute chunks with breaks in between so that people can go see all the displays, we'll also have next door.

Julia Meek: You're really keeping things going. and then the 20 minute increments, very clever and keeping people moving around and circulating.

Bruce Kingsbury: Yeah we want to have a lot of different presentations. And so they have to be relatively short, because it doesn't take very many presentations, and you're done with the day. At the same time we have just as many displays in the next room that are also interactive.

And we have asked those folks that are doing those displays, not only to talk about who they are and where they're from, but also provide challenges and what to do about its for the day from their side. People can go back and forth, they can attend whatever presentations they want.

And they can go check out the displays, we have a little structure so that people can go back and forth. But really, it's up to them to decide what they want to see. 

Julia Meek: It sounds like there's something for everyone. And speaking of which, this day of conservation and conversation combines business with pleasure, obviously, it's an important fundraiser as well. Now how does that part work, what's in store in the fun within the fund raising?

Bruce Kingsbury: So the fundraising and friendraising (chuckles) and all that sort of stuff! Some of that happens over the day, because of all the conversations and people getting engaged and getting excited. But after Michael gives his presentation, we're going to have a social and a silent auction, which actually is going to be online and available a couple of days before anything else happens on the ground.

And then after that, we're going to go into a dinner. And we'll have live music as the entertainment with Alicia Pyle and Michael Patterson, a little jazz, a little blues--a good time. I'll give a little update on the ERC to our guests as well. But I will keep it short, because we have (chuckles) we have music to listen to and maybe there'll be some bidding on the silent auction items. We also have a very tasty dinner plan. And the lunch is going to be very nice as well.

The day registration comes with a lunch. And then you can also register for the dinner. Now that is a fundraiser. And I will say that we need funds to do these kinds of programs to provide internships, to do the landscaping, all those sorts of things, we have to raise that money, we don't get that money from the university. So this is an important opportunity for folks who like what we do to contribute to it.

Julia Meek: And a great time to combine business with pleasure in the name of sustainability.

Bruce Kingsbury: Yeah. So you mentioned a little earlier about the day, and kudos to my staff for all the work that they've done. Samantha Theison, Elizabeth Cubberley Alysa, Hennessy.

All those folks have been working really hard on this and I really appreciate their efforts. Unless you've been involved with these kinds of days, you have no idea how much work they take. They've been wonderful and I think it's going to be a really great event.

Julia Meek: It sounds it. And who do you expect to see in attendance on that day and evening?

Bruce Kingsbury: So this event is designed for and open to the general public. So we want to have a conversation with people who are interested in these sorts of topics, have them come and listen, participate.

And so this is not the kind of meeting where you just have professionals or just a bunch of academicians, this is actually designed for the general public. So we want very much for folks to come. That's really the key thing in terms of an audience.

Julia Meek: Great. And now Bruce, how would you say northeast Indiana measures up to other areas our size in conservation practices?

Bruce Kingsbury: Well, I think I'd frankly have to say we're a bit behind. The state of Indiana and the city of Fort Wayne, the metropolitan area. It's only in the last 20 years or so I think we've really taken some steps forward with some discussions like what to do about the riverfront in terms of not only economic development, but also what are the environmental issues.

Turning towards the rivers instead of away from the rivers, thinking about green spaces and connectivity between them. Those kinds of conversations are relatively new. And then we're in an agricultural area that has a variety of issues with water quality. And that's another realm that we're starting to make a lot of progress on separating stormwater from sewer water, of working on nonpoint source pollution.

We did a pretty good job with point source pollution from factories and that kind of thing several decades ago. And now the challenge is what to do about the stuff that leaks out from everywhere. And so that's a big challenge in our landscape. On the positive side is what other areas have done this kind of work already, and we have some guidance then to make progress.

And now folks are more interested in doing something about these things. And that's really what's necessary for making progress.

Julia Meek: Timing is everything.

Bruce Kingsbury: Yes and we are there.

Julia Meek: Yes and you are pushing all of this forward. And meanwhile, your Environmental Resources Center is one of Purdue Fort Wayne's Centers of Excellence. Now, how has the whole new facility and basic expansion of your program that we're speaking of beefed up your game there inat this time when you need it to be? Is the bigger presence helping to get folks aware and involved in all the things that they need to be doing?

Bruce Kingsbury: So there are perhaps a dozen Centers of Excellence on campus and as a whole the notion with the center is to leverage the expertise of the faculty on campus to work with community stakeholders on a variety of different kinds of issues and needs. And for us, we have our own mission, which helps us with outreach and engagement and fulfills the center's goals.

Having the building has been really wonderful, that we have interns, we have lots of meetings, we have the environmental club, the herpetology club, the marine biology club, clubs from other areas across campus are meeting there. We host community organizations that don't have a home, we serve them as an incubator, and also just as a safe space for them to do the things that they're trying to do.

And all that is possible because we have this facility. We have room for projects, we have grounds that we can display how to get things done in a sustainable way. So it's been very exciting, and a great ride since we got the building,

Julia Meek: Indeed, and sounds like proof that open a space like this, and they will come.

Bruce Kingsbury: Certainly, I think we've demonstrated that the center is a good idea and having us in the building is a great idea. We've definitely been successful on that front.

Julia Meek: Good for you. And I am curious, Bruce, as you noted earlier, it's easy to be overwhelmed and discouraged by this world's environmental issues. What do you say to those people out there who say, ah it's just too late?

Bruce Kingsbury: Well, now there's a whole field that's called conservation depression. And what do you, what do you do about this feeling that it's hopeless. And it is true that humans are not very good at dealing with the consequences of what we're doing here with the environment, but also of getting this feeling that it's, it's too late, we can't really do anything about it.

So one of the things we're trying to do at the ERC, and also with the Conservation Conversation, is to look at those kinds of problems, but also ask what can we do and to make progress. And so it's what are the pathways to progress. And the other thing that's clear to somebody like me is that we always have to wrap hope into whatever messaging that we're wanting to give.

We want to talk about the problems but we also want to say that there is hope. And in fact, something like climate change, there still is an opportunity for us to move things the way we want. But we are going to have to act. Otherwise things just do kind of go along but we're going to have to be intentional and try to guide things in the direction we would like for them to go.

Julia Meek: Hope and hard work. Is that what you're saying?

Bruce Kingsbury: Hope, yep, Hope and effort. Yep.

Julia Meek: Okay, once this major event on the horizon is accomplished, what's next on your agenda of public presentations there at the center.

Bruce Kingsbury: The last couple of years, we've had about 50 different sorts of events, either in the center on campus or off campus where we are hosting things, or we are helping others with their events, that sort of thing. So we're very active.

I'd highlight two upcoming events that are happening early in 2024. One will be an event celebrating World Wetlands Day, we always have a good time doing something about wetlands to celebrate wetlands, because they are such an important component in our landscape here in Indiana, and they are constantly under threat. So that's an important thing for us.

And then another thing is our Naturally Inspired event, which we'll have March 20. And that is about art as inspired by nature. We tried that this year for the first time and it was a hoot. It was great. We had people bring in their sculptures and their paintings and their found art, the found things that they made into sculptures and all that kind of stuff and some of us read poetry. It was wonderful.

So I'd like to do that again but you know, on a larger scale, so move out of the ERC, we can put 30 or 40 people in there and have a good time. But we want to move into a space where we can have 100 people and do it again. So I'm excited about that for the spring.

Julia Meek: Very exciting and that happens to be on the Vernal Equinox.

Bruce Kingsbury: Yeah, first day of Spring, we're gonna we're gonna ring it in!

Julia Meek: Wonderful. Now okay, Bruce. Conservation is indeed a righteous cause as you're convincing us and a necessary conversation. So bottom line, what do you hope will be directly gained with this level of, in your own words, coming together to share research, experience and perspectives?

Bruce Kingsbury: I really hope that everybody who comes leaves with some notion about what they might do themselves and also an understanding of what larger entities will do.

So what does a community do? What do large corporations do? What do we do in the agricultural landscape because it's very complex. There's a lot of different moving parts, and we want people to be thinking about a lot of them.

But ultimately, what we want to provide is hope and guidance on what might be done or what they could do.

Julia Meek: Bruce Kingsbury is biology professor and director of Purdue Fort Wayne's Environmental Resources Center. Thank you so much for sharing this story and doing these works, Bruce. Sustainability always. Carry it on!

Bruce Kingsbury: Thank you very much for having me.


A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.