When the Lehigh Valley Railroad limped out of business in the late 1960s, SUNY Cortland Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences John A. Gustafson saw an opportunity for Cortland County.
A portion of the railroad cut through an area of ponds and peat bogs near the county’s western border, which today houses the Lime Hollow Center for Environment and Culture. So Gustafson, with a group of former SUNY Cortland faculty members, approached local officials with a plan.
“It’s really a great place to take students on field trips,” said Gustafson, 86, of Homer, N.Y. “So we went to the county and said: ‘You’ve got to buy this railroad right away because it’s such a precious thing.’”
To his surprise, the county purchased the railroad portion, which measured 80 feet wide and two and half miles long.
“That was the beginning of what is now a pretty extensive situation,” Gustafson said.
That extensive situation is the Lime Hollow area, a 400-acre nature preserve established in 1992 which includes 10 miles of trails and a $1 million visitor center. The site attracts more than 23,000 visitors and hundreds of SUNY Cortland students each year. For thousands of alumni, especially those who majored in the natural sciences, Lime Hollow is part of their scrapbook of college memories.
Gustafson was one of Lime Hollow’s earliest visionaries and still serves as one of its most loyal caretakers. That’s why in December he was awarded one of five Central New York “Heroes of Conservation” awards presented by The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y.
The honor surprised the professor emeritus who served SUNY Cortland for 26 years, from 1955 to 1981. He said he was happy to see his award shine light on one of Cortland County’s most precious natural gems.
With more than half a century’s worth of wildlife work under his belt, Gustafson still pours his effort into Lime Hollow. He visits the nature preserve at least twice a week to handle his duties as treasurer. He’s a longstanding board member and financial supporter. And when he’s not actually working, he’s bird watching or taking his grandchildren on night walks under the moonlight.
“It keeps me active,” he said.
Gustafson said his Lime Hollow experiences remind him of the 12 years he spent as the chair of the College’s Biological Sciences Department, when he would take a group of students to Florida for science-related spring break trips.
“A whole bunch of kids, we caravanned our own automobiles to Florida during the March break to look at alligators and birds and all of the other things you see in that area,” said Gustafson, who helped establish the College’s Aldo Leopold Award for outstanding biological sciences majors. “Students would come back and say that’s what they remember: the field trips, being outdoors and getting their hands dirty.
“That’s what I benefitted from too — not just the classroom stuff, but getting my hands dirty.”