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Susquehanna Life

Ash Skateboards, Solar-Powered Ideas, & PA’s Official State Amphibian: Life Around the River

Ash Skateboards

In 2011 Van Wagner learned of the emerald ash borer, a bright metallic green beetle smaller than a dime but capable of taking down ash trees thousands of times its size. Two years later, at least 50 mature ash trees on Wagner’s mountain farm on Montour Ridge, Montour County, were dying.

Originally from Asia, the emerald ash borer was first discovered in the Detroit area in 2002. It is believed to have entered the U.S. on wooden packing materials from China and has destroyed 40 million ash trees in Michigan alone, and tens of millions throughout other states and Canada. 

“We did a salvage harvest of all marketable ash trees on my land in 2014,” said Wagner, an environmental science teacher and skate club advisor at Lewisburg High School. He is also a part-time logger on land he owns in Danville. “I was really struck at how quickly the insect killed all my trees. My trees were dead before I even saw one of the insects in person.”  

For those with healthy ash trees—or who believe the trees are healthy—Wagner advises caution.

“If you have an ash tree on your land, you might as well take it down now while it is still sound,” he said. “This invasive insect kills every tree I have seen.  It’s heartbreaking to think about, but my children will likely be the last generation of Americans to see these trees.”

Wagner devised a creative idea for the trees that have been lost. He takes the remnants of ash trees and turns them into skateboards that he sells through his website ( and Ski Valley, a sports equipment store in Danville. The skateboards ($40) are an ash and maple blend—and the only skateboard on the market made of ash wood.

The skateboards are manufactured at a mill in Oil City and serve a dual purpose—reusing potentially diseased product and getting people talking about forests.

“I grew up playing baseball and I always preferred hitting with ash bats because the ball really pops off the bat when hit,” Wagner said. “If it works for baseball, it should work for skating. I want these skateboards to get people talking about our forests and the threats they face.  If we take care of our forests, they will take care of us.”

Visit for more information on the emerald ash borer – Jennifer Penceck

Solar-Powered Ideas

A shift in energy has occurred on the campus of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, involving solar energy and a unique way to keep solar panels functioning at optimal performance. 

Thirty percent of Susquehanna University’s energy needs are supplied by its 3.9 megawatt DC solar array, the largest university-sponsored solar array in Pennsylvania. The university officially “flipped the switch” last October.

“The university has been on a fairly systematic path to reduce its carbon footprint and improve energy efficiency,” said Jonathan D. Green, president of Susquehanna University. “We had stopped burning coal and implemented high-efficiency natural gas boilers a few years before the solar project.”

The solar initiative is a partnership with WGL Energy Systems, which has more than 200 MW of distributed generation projects installed or under contract across 20 states and the District of Columbia. 

WGL owns and operates the solar-generating facility under a 25-year power purchase agreement that calls for the university to purchase its electricity from WGL. SGC Power, a Maryland-based company, served as co-developer and provided design and construction services.

“We agreed to purchase the electricity it produces for the next 25 years at the price per kWh when the array went live,” Green said. “This provides a financial hedge on 30 percent of our electric consumption. If we successfully reduce our electricity use, that percentage will climb. It’s good business, and it is important as an educational institution for us to demonstrate responsible practices for our students and neighbors.”

The university has some unlikely partners. Nearly 30 sheep control vegetation growing under the solar arrays to prevent tall growth from shading the panels and inhibiting power production. The area under the panels is difficult to mow; sheep control vegetation more effectively and less expensively.

“Grazing sheep under solar panels is an emerging trend worldwide,” said Caroline Owens, of Owens Farm in Sunbury, which owns the sheep. “As solar farms have expanded, so have partnerships with sheep producers. In 2018, the nonprofit American Solar Grazers Association was founded to promote grazing in solar installations and develop best practices for shepherds and site managers.”

As shepherd, Owens said her primary goal is to manage the grazing to optimize results. The seasonal growth pattern forms a bimodal curve—rapid spring growth, summer dormancy and autumn resurgence of cool-season grasses. She uses portable electric fencing to modify paddock size, moving the flock as needed. The fences are electrified with a freestanding charger energized with a solar panel. In addition to grass, the sheep enjoy an ongoing supply of clean water, free-choice salt and a mineral supplement specific to soils in the Northeast. 

“Instead of a precisely manicured surface reminiscent of a golf course, a grazed field offers a natural finish with a diversity of plant heights,” Owens said. “Invisible to the naked eye are the benefits of storing carbon, recycling nutrients, building soil organic matter and supporting biological soil activity. Grazing solar panels is truly a win-win for all concerned.” 

Learn more about solar grazing at –Jennifer Pencek

PA’s Official State Amphibian

“It was no small feat to get this recognition for the hellbender,” Gov. Tom Wolf said, dressed in a blue “Hellbender Defender” t-shirt, moments before signing a bill designating the Eastern hellbender as Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian.

“I want to thank the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and also acknowledge the hard work of the foundation’s Student Leadership Program,” the governor added. “The voices of students can clearly make a difference here in Harrisburg.”

Since 2016, CBF’s Student Leadership Council members have spearheaded the campaign to recognize the Eastern hellbender and create greater awareness of the critical need to reduce pollution in Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams.

Hellbenders are an indicator species for clean water. They survive where there is cold, clear, swift-running water.

Students studied hellbenders extensively, installed nesting boxes in several Pennsylvania streams, and wrote the first draft of a bill that was sponsored by Senator Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) and passed the Senate last year. Though the bill did not pass the House before the session ended, the students did not give up.

When the new session began in January, the students again found Senator Yaw to be their champion. He reintroduced the effort as Senate Bill 9, which was signed into law by Governor Wolf. The bill was passed overwhelmingly by the Senate and House on Feb. 4 and April 16 respectively.

“This bill is more than just about naming a new symbol for our state,” Sen. Gene Yaw said. “It’s about fostering youth involvement in the legislative process. It’s about advocating for clean water in Pennsylvania and promoting conservation programs that improve water quality for all of our species.”

“It is my hope that other student leaders across the Commonwealth may be inspired by our work,” said SLC President Emma Stone. “Making change is possible, no matter your age.”

A lack of streamside trees along Commonwealth waterways allows waters to warm, polluted runoff to enter rivers and streams, and silt to build up in streambeds. As a result, habitat for hellbenders has been degraded and hellbender numbers have been decimated in streams where they were plentiful as recently as 1990.

“As much as this effort has been about the hellbender and clean water, it’s also a story about the creativity and passion of these student leaders,” said Harry Campbell, CBF’s executive director in Pennsylvania.

For more information about the campaign for the Eastern hellbender, visit

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