Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania is coming up on its 100th birthday. To mark the occasion, the more than 1,800-member chapter has decided that its four properties in the Pittsburgh area will be 100 percent carbon neutral by the end of 2016. To achieve this goal, ASWP will install new solar panels and wind turbines, plant native trees and grasses, and calculate the carbon-saving benefits of its eco-friendly buildings. Carbon dioxide emissions make up the majority of greenhouse gases driving climate change, which threatens many species of birds and other wildlife.

The ambition has precedent: ASWP was an early adopter of solar and wind power in the 1980s, says executive director Jim Bonner. Since then the chapter has also lessened its ecological impact by choosing building locations and plans that naturally stay cooler in summer and warmer in winter, which saves energy on air conditioning and heat. ASWP manages three public locations: two properties with nature centers and educational buildings, plus a third site with hiking trails.

One site, Beechwood Farms, boasts a native plant nursery built from straw bales. Straw retains heat in the winter and keeps the nursery cool in summer. It’s also a byproduct from agriculture and can replace more energy-intensive materials such as wood. In Pennsylvania’s colder months, on-demand hot water (heated only as needed) keeps the building warm.

In addition to building green, the chapter is in the middle of replacing several solar arrays and wind turbines to adopt more efficient technology. At its Succop Nature Park, ASWP will be installing a vertical wind turbine that will have “almost no potential for bird or bat deaths,” says Bonner. And geothermal? Yes, the chapter has tested a geothermal air conditioning system at Beechwood and will be installing geothermal heating and cooling at Succop’s environmental learning center.

But just worrying about energy isn’t enough. ASWP has also adopted practices that will reduce harmful runoff and urban flooding. The chapter founded the Three Rivers Rain Garden Alliance to help area residents create rain gardens blooming with native plants that provide valuable habitat and boost climate resiliency for many bird species. Bonner estimates that staff members have installed enough rain gardens to keep about 1 million gallons of stormwater out of the local watershed. This stormwater runoff would otherwise pour excess sediment, nutrients, and other pollutants into local rivers and streams.

And at Beechwood's education buildings, composting toilets help lighten the load (literally) on the environment because they don’t require water for flushing and create less wastewater for treatment facilities.

Finally, to help offset the carbon emissions generated by 40,000 visitors traveling to ASWP sites each year, the chapter plans to convert 50 acres of cornfield into natural habitat that will also serve as a carbon sink. And its educational programs teach kids and families about the benefits of native plants and saving energy, sharing ways they can get involved.

“Since our primary focus is working with families [and] individuals and connecting people to nature, we try to make sure that the things we demonstrate are actually approachable,” says Bonner. The average family probably doesn’t have space for a 40-foot wind turbine in their backyard, but they can plant a native garden, increase their energy efficiency, and support renewable energy programs.

To make visitors a part of the solution, Bonner says, “we want to get them engaged, we want to educate them about it, and then we want them to roll up their sleeves, whether it’s at home or at their schools or offices.”

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