Among the recipients of this year’s awards from the Northeast Environmental Partnership are two conservationists whose stewardship is rooted in an early fascination with the natural world. For both men, recreation (particularly fishing) was the key to cherishing ecosystems and wanting to keep them healthy for generations to come.
Thomas P. Shelburne Environmental Leadership Award
John Levitsky, Luzerne Conservation District
The Thomas P. Shelburne Environmental Leadership Award recognizes lifetime achievement on behalf of northeastern Pennsylvania’s environment. 2023 recipient and Luzerne County native John Levitsky’s fascination with wildlife began when he was just a boy, with the gift of a bird book from his aunt.
“I became a birdwatcher at a young age, and then a fisherman and a hunter with my family,” Levitsky said. “That became my passion.”
Levitsky went on to become a civil engineer but spent his free time volunteering with Ducks Unlimited, where he spent many years on habitat improvement projects, such as installing wood duck boxes on State Game Lands.
Through these experiences, Levitsky became interested in how natural systems self-regulate and heal through symbiotic relationships. After retraining as an endangered species biologist and botanist, he applied the lessons of symbiosis in his work — first to the ecological restoration projects he undertook as the Luzerne Conservation District’s Watershed Specialist, and later to the network of partnerships that made them possible.
“As you develop your partnerships with all the different agencies and individuals that have similar goals and parallel goals, you eventually see that that symbiotic relationship with all these different partners is very similar to what nature does,” Levitsky said. “Nature takes care of its own in so many different ways.”
Emerging Environmental Leader Award
The 2023 Emerging Environmental Leader Award went to Lehigh County native Jacob Smith, currently a senior at Wilkes University. Smith grew up playing in the stream that ran through his family’s farm and, as a teenager, fell in love with fly fishing. That’s how he began to notice the prevalence of abandoned mine lands in NEPA and their negative impacts on waterways.
“I became not only just someone who liked to fish, but also it started a lifelong passion of conservation,” Smith said.
Determined to protect the wild places he loved, Smith started volunteering with his local conservation district and chapter of Trout Unlimited. In 2020, he co-founded the Pennsylvania chapter of the Native Fish Coalition with a focus on protecting native brook trout from invasive species.
While studying for a career in environmental engineering, Smith started the Wilkes University Fly Fishing Club to organize outings with his fellow students. He sees the sport as a way to get young people interested in conservation.
“If you sell someone on fly fishing, you sell them on cold, clean water,” Smith said. “At that point, you have another steward.”
The club has adopted the Seven Tubs Recreation Area in Luzerne County and partners with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to conduct waterway cleanups there.
Smith was humble about his award. He doesn’t consider his achievements to be exceptional — in his eyes, he’s simply doing what’s right.
Both men were honored at the 33rd Annual Evening for Northeast Pennsylvania’s Environment. The event is organized by the Northeast Environmental Partners, comprised of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Pennsylvania Environmental Council, PPL Corporation, Procter & Gamble Paper Products Company, and Wilkes University.
We’ll be publishing more videos on this year’s award winners in the coming weeks. Find more information on the event and this year’s honorees here.