Sarkis Acopian, a successful Armenian-American entrepreneur who first started his power supply business, Acopian Technical Company, in 1957, was a philanthropist who believed in supporting the community quietly but with unmatched generosity. Today, the Acopian name is synonymous with several world- class educational facilities, including the Acopian Engineering Center at Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania, the Acopian Center for Ornithology at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania. Acopian also established endowments for leadership at the American University of Armenia (AUA) in Yerevan, Lafayette College, and Florida Institute of Technology, in Melbourne, Florida.
A global and progressive thinker, Mr. Acopian wanted to make a lasting impact in Armenia, as well. Not satisfied with just monetary contributions, he initiated an informed environmental movement in the country using a two-pronged approach to attain his goal, beginning in 1992.
First, he established a department at the American University in Armenia to promote environmental conservation through research, education, and public involvement. Today, this internationally recognized, award-winning department is known as the Acopian Center for the Environment (ACE). In addition to providing specialization within the field of conservation, the American University of Armenia requires all of its students to take at least one course in Environmental Studies before graduating. Acopian believed that by providing an educational facility that promoted conservation and environmental awareness, the citizenry of Armenia, especially the younger generation, would begin to appreciate their natural resources and encourage others to also protect Armenia’s biodiversity.
Second, he created and spearheaded the Birds of Armenia Project (BOA); assembling a team of ornithologists from around the world to work on a field guide to birds of Armenia. His goal was to promote conservation awareness in Armenia and introduce her rich natural treasures to the world. BOA has since published three important works: A Field Guide to Birds of Armenia (1997), (in Armenian, 1999), a reference map of Armenia (1999), and The Handbook of the Birds of Armenia (1999), all of which were published at a time when the newly Independent Republic of Armenia needed to thrive on its own.
Sarkis’s son, Jeff and his wife Helen, have been a vital part of the family’s mission of promoting environmental conservation in Armenia since the inception of the Birds of Armenia Project in 1992. “The field guide was the beginning of an awakening for Armenians to realize what they had and for people outside Armenia to learn what Armenia had.” Supporting Acopian’s claim is Frank Gill, the VP of the National Audubon Society who praised A Field Guide to Birds of Armenia as “…clearly and effectively documenting the bird life of a region largely unknown in the West, but richly endowed with biological and cultural diversity. Here an international team of expert ornithologists shines the international spotlight on the fascinating birds of Armenia in one of the world’s … very best regional field guides.” The field guide now serves to introduce both Armenians and international birders to the bird life of Armenia–an initial step in better protecting this portion of the country’s biological heritage.
Situated in the Caucuses region, Armenia is home to a multitude of habitats and species that are quickly disappearing, becoming extinct or migrating to Turkey and other neighboring countries because of deforestation, overhunting, wetland drainage and pollution. Acopian believes that, “People don’t realize that if we do nothing, Armenia’s natural resources will be permanently depleted. Unfortunately, planting trees won’t revive natural forest systems that are being destroyed, and in a few years, environmental preservation in Armenia will be a lost cause. We can only be ultimately successful if the youth join our fight for environmental awareness.” The Acopians reached out to their nephew, Alex Karapetian, for his experience and ties to the Armenian-American youth.
Originally from Los Angeles, California, Karapetian who is 27, has always remained active in the Armenian community. He later moved to the East Coast where he worked as the Assistant Grassroots Director at the Armenian Assembly of America in Washington, D.C and managed their annual summer internship program. He has also assumed a similar leadership position at his alma mater, Lafayette College, where he serves as his alumni class President and the Chair of the Young Alumni Committee. In both positions, Karapetian is responsible for motivating his peers to be actively involved in Lafayette’s community through participation and outreach. Upon joining his uncle at Acopian Technical Company, Karapetian was awakened to the urgent need for action to safeguard Armenia’s unique natural areas. “We Armenians have strong roots and my generation needs to come together for this great and urgent cause to preserve our homeland’s natural resources,” says Karapetian.
On Thursday, July 30, the Acopian family will be sponsoring an event, “Cheers to Conservation,” hosted by the YPGNY at the AGBU headquarters in New York City. This event is to encourage public involvement for conservation in Armenia and is targeted towards the young professionals in the tri-state area. Many non-Armenian professionals will also be in attendance. Karapetian believes that, “The current lack of environmental preservation in Armenia isn’t just an Armenian issue, it’s a global issue and everyone should be involved.”
Dr. Keith Bildstein, the Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the home of the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning, describes Mr. Acopian’s global conservation impact thusly: “Sarkis had the twin gifts of recognizing meaningful conservation actions, and supporting conservation organizations that wanted to achieve them. At my organization, the Acopian Center’s unique international internship program has trained more than 300 promising young conservationists from 58 countries on six continents, including three Armenians. This new generation of conservationists is now helping to protect bird life globally. Quite literally, Mr. Acopian’s informed giving has made all the difference in the world.”
Today, the Acopian Center for the Environment sponsors many educational programs for the youth. One program in particular is a conservation education competition called “Birds in my Backyard” that encourages schoolchildren to build birdfeeders, observe the birds, and take a photo or draw a picture of a bird that comes to the feeder. This competition also puts special emphasis on the youth and children’s participation in discussing current environmental challenges in the region.
In May 2007, Her Royal Highness Princess Anne of Great Britain and Sir David Attenborough awarded Dr. Karen Aghababyan, ACE Director, with the Whitley Award of Nature, Britain’s highest conservation award, for his research on the White Stork Project. The White Stork Project, another educational outreach program through the ACE, requires the participation of Armenian villagers throughout the country. The project focuses on using the very common and abundant white stork as a potential bio-indicator of environmental changes in Armenia. The study of the migration patterns and reproductive ecology of white storks can measure the potential impact of climate change and increased pesticide/herbicide use in Armenia. The project is unique because it uses villagers as citizen scientists or “nest neighbors” in the data collection process. Their involvement with the research gives them a better understanding of wildlife ecology and improves the relationship between people and nesting storks.
In sum, what started as a grand vision has turned into an even grander reality for an Armenian-American industrialist whose passion for the environment has enhanced environmental understanding and conservation, not only in Armenia but elsewhere across the globe. Although he is no longer with us, Sarkis Acopian’s mission of promoting conservation awareness among the citizenry of Armenia and the diaspora is being continued at the Acopian Center for the Environment.