Big Support for a Nature Reserve’s Research on Appalachian Ecosystem

The Powdermill Nature Reserve is a protected slice of Appalachia that’s offered a window into its ecosystems for 60 years. A regional funder is helping it up its game—including use of drones to study the landscape.

The great thing about Southwest Pennsylvania’s Powdermill Nature Reserve, from a research perspective, is that it’s similar to a lot of Appalachia, the mountainous woods and waterways stretching from Alabama to New York. 

It’s an ecologically important region for the country, and Powdermill has served as a refuge for its plant and animal life, but also as a sort of window into how the region changes over time. 

It was established in 1956 by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to act as a “field station” for long-term study of flora and fauna, and has become a draw for researchers looking to perform longitudinal studies, and as an educational tool as well. 

Over the years, it’s been home to some fascinating projects, notably its long-term study of migratory birds—it’s the longest-running bird banding station in the country, monitoring more than 600,000 birds in the past 50 years. Other projects include observing migratory patterns by recording birds’ calls, and running experiments on the surprisingly high number of bird deaths from flying into windows. 

The reserve is always looking to expand its capabilities and technology over time, though, and one of its biggest backers in doing so has been the Richard King Mellon Foundation

Related: The Richard King Mellon Foundation Is Big Into Watershed Conservation

The foundation has been backing the reserve for years, including $3 million in support in 2005, $730,000 in 2011, and the new grant for $700,000. The funder has a mostly regional focus giving in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and to environmental issues nationally, with some emphasis still on the state. It’s a good-sized foundation too—in 2015, 178 grants for $130 million were approved for a mix of environment, development, human services, and education. 

So backing for Powdermill is twofold or even a few-fold for Mellon, supporting conservation, education, and a beloved piece of land for that part of the state.  

The current grant will allow the reserve to pursue some pretty interesting work. Funds will support another step up for its research of birds, including radio-frequency tags that will enhance their monitoring of the region’s birds, allowing them to track patterns as they fly. 

Funds will also support a detailed analysis of a plot of land that can serve as a baseline for understanding how the environment is adapting to climate change. 

Related: Funding Conservation Through the Lens of Climate Change 

One valuable technology the reserve will add to its toolbelt is the use of aerial drones to take and stitch together thousands of detailed images of the landscape. Drones have quickly become a popular tool among conservationists and biologists, and an injection of funds to make such a purchase can save the park countless hours of manual labor as it builds 3D images of the land.

Emerging technologies and the ability to collect and crunch large amounts of data, like in many areas of research right now, have become crucial to conservation and biology. This is a key example of how a private funder can leverage such upgrades to potentially accelerate an already impressive legacy.