Shaped by a Salamander

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Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signs Senate Bill 9 on April 23, 2019, designating the Eastern hellbender as the Commonwealth’s official state amphibian. Flanking Gov. Wolf is former CBF Student Leadership Council (SLC) President Anna Pauletta, left, and SLC President Emma Stone, right. Five years after the momentous occasion, it’s clear that the hellbender campaign left a lasting impression on students who made it happen.

BJ Small/CBF Staff

Five years after their triumphant campaign to crown the Eastern hellbender as Pennsylvania’s state amphibian, former CBF student leaders are taking on the world of conservation, education, and law.

Surrounded by an excited group of passionate teenagers and clad in a blue “Hellbender  Defender” t-shirt, Governor Tom Wolf signed a bill on April 23, 2019, designating the Eastern hellbender as Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian.
It was the culmination of a three-year campaign by a determined team of CBF Student Leadership Council (SLC) members to recognize the largest salamander in North America and create greater awareness of the critical need to reduce pollution in the Commonwealth’s rivers and streams.

Gloved hands hold a large, wet salamander with a stream and trees shown in the background.

Pennsylvania's Eastern hellbender is a Susquehanna watershed native and the largest amphibian in North America (they can grow as large as 29-inches).

Neil Ever Osborne/ILCP

The students studied hellbenders extensively, installed nesting boxes in several Pennsylvania streams, and wrote the first draft of the bill that was sponsored by Senator Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) in 2018. Though the bill did not pass the House before the session ended, the students did not give up.

When a new session began in January 2019, the measure was reintroduced as Senate Bill 9. The students helped guide the legislation toward overwhelming passage by the Senate and House, and the Governor’s signature. The SLC hellbender campaign garnered local, state, and national attention, making it onto the front page of the Wall Street Journal and as subject of the iconic Mark Trail Sunday comic strip. A radio station in Canada interviewed SLC President Emma Stone.

To mark the five-year anniversary of the signing of the hellbender bill, CBF reconnected with Stone and some of the other former student leaders who made it happen. The experience left a lasting impression on them, and they are now moving toward promising careers in the fields of conservation, education, law, and the environment.

Anna Pauletta.

Anna Pauletta

Pauletta was president of CBF’s Student Leadership Council (SLC) when the hellbender campaign began in 2016, and graduated from Cumberland Valley High School a year later. After high school, she attended Penn State to continue her environmental education, served as a CBF intern, and was a member of the Board of Trustees. She graduated from Penn State in 2021 with degrees in forest ecosystem management, with a focus in forest biology, and wildlife and fisheries science, with a focus in wildlife biology. She also graduated with minors in biology and political science. Before graduating from college, she enlisted and is now serving as a paralegal specialist in the U.S. Army. She is applying to law school for fall of 2024.

“My decision to pursue law school and become an attorney specializing in environmental law was strongly influenced by my time working on the hellbender bill,” Pauletta says. “As high school students, we were able to make a huge impact on the hellbender’s story in North America. What was once an animal that did not have a strong presence in the public eye is now a household name in Pennsylvania. If a small group of high school students could accomplish that, I thought that there was an even greater opportunity for a positive impact that could be generated as an environmentalist with a law degree.”

Lenka Platt.

Lenka Platt

Platt graduated from Halifax Area High School in 2020 and from Chatham University in 2023, with a bachelor of science degree in sustainability, natural resources management track. She is now a graduate student at Slippery Rock University studying for her master’s of education in environmental education. She works with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy at the Frick Environmental Center as an educator, teaching children in preschool through high school.

“I was able to explore many types of environmental work and develop my love of working with children. I started an environmental club at my school through the Student Leadership Council and hosted Environmental Field Days for middle school students where professionals from around the region taught sessions about the work that they are passionate about,” Platt says. “With SLC and the hellbender bill, I had so many experiences that many do not have access to. I met with my legislators, grew my public speaking skills, worked on a hellbender conservation project, engaged with my community.”

Anne Puchalsky.

Anne Puchalsky

Puchalsky graduated from Cumberland Valley High School in 2019. She completed her bachelor of science degree in wildlife and fisheries science, with a minor in forest ecosystem management, from Penn State. She is now involved in wildlife research and has worked seasonal field technician positions relating to ornithology. Her positions have been related to bird species that are in decline. She worked with saltmarsh sparrows and will soon be working with a subspecies of black-throated green warblers. She hopes to obtain her master’s degree in wildlife science or conservation biology.

“Without the influence of SLC trips and the hellbender project I may have not chosen to go into a field relating to wildlife or conservation” Puchalsky says. “I am very thankful that it gave me a taste of advocating for something that I am passionate about, and I continue to use my voice to do so.”

Hanna Ryon.

Hanna Ryon

Ryon graduated from Biglerville High School in 2020 and now studies sustainability and public relations at Messiah University, graduating in May 2024. She is looking to enter a career in outdoor education or environmental communication. She is “super interested” in providing opportunities for everyone to enjoy the outdoors and learn more about conservation.

“CBF inspired me to relentlessly work for the causes I was passionate about, to rely on my team for support, and love the unloved,” Ryon remembers. “CBF, and specifically the hellbender experience, made me a confident and well-spoken leader who will not give up.”

“I remember our team continuing to work on the bill even when it did not pass in the first session,” she says. “This grit and determination continued throughout the campaign as we dealt with legislators who did not approve of our cause, but we continued tirelessly pushing for the hellbender’s designation. The absolute joy we all experienced once the bill passed through and made its way to Governor Wolf’s desk was incomparable.”

Emma Stone.

Emma Stone

Stone was president of the SLC when the hellbender bill was signed in April 2019. She graduated from Carlisle High School in 2019 and from Mansfield University in 2022 after studying environmental science and outdoor recreation leadership. She is Community Engagement Coordinator for a small non-profit called the LEAF Project (Leadership, Education, and Farming). It is a small-scale produce farm in Perry County, Pennsylvania, that employs high school students to work on the farm, learn about sustainable agriculture, and develop leadership skills.

“I know firsthand the power of youth voices which is what led me to enter the field of youth leadership post-grad. I never would have thought it was possible for a group of high schoolers to do what we did five years ago,” Stone says. “I think what made the biggest difference were all of the mentors and legislators along the way.  Never once did they indicate that we were out of our league—I always felt a sense of belonging.”

“My work on the hellbender campaign is hands-down the thing in my life that I am most proud of,” she says.

Andrew Waldman.

Andrew Waldman

Waldman graduated from Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School in 2020 and will graduate this May from Penn State, studying mechanical engineering. At Penn State he has continued to be an advocate for students and fair funding for in-state institutions. After college, he plans to attend law school in the Philadelphia area.

“Getting the opportunity to work with so many like-minded peers and having success showed me the power that young people can have in government,” Waldman remembers. “My hellbender experience was the starting point for working with my state representative and with my university to advocate for students.”

B.J. Small 90x110

B.J. Small

Pennsylvania Communications & Media Relations Manager, CBF

[email protected]

Issues in this Post

Advocacy   Chesapeake Wildlife   Community   Hellbender Campaign   Pennsylvania Office  

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