Environmental Learning Center:
Restoration project heals environment, community and college
Written by Shelly Parini, CCC senior executive project manager
he Environmental Learning Center at Clackamas Community College (CCC) represents something different to everyone. Some see it as a place to stroll and commune with nature. Some see it as an outdoor learning laboratory. And others see it as a pioneer in recycling.
As the college marks its 50th anniversary, the Environmental Learning Center (ELC) is entering a new phase with the restoration of the headwaters of Newell Creek on the CCC Oregon City campus.
The ELC is located on a 5-acre natural area containing the headwaters of Newell Creek. The site is part of the 1800-acre Newell Creek watershed, a steep forested canyon that is bordered by the neighborhoods and businesses of Oregon City.
The restoration efforts of the site are made possible through a Metro Nature in Neighborhood grant and the contributions of others who have stepped forward.
The restoration will:
- Enhance water quality within the Newell Creek watershed
- Increase the capacity of the ELC to serve as an educational resource for college students, schools and teachers, industry members and families
- Provide passive recreation for east metro communities
- Leverage the ongoing support of community partners committed to protecting the health and sustainability of the Newell Creek watershed
Concurrent with the restoration plans, CCC undertook an extensive community engagement initiative, the ELC Historical Preservation Project in 2016. The college invited community members, students, faculty and staff to share memories of the past, as well as dreams for the future of the site. Hundreds of people have participated in this process.
The college and the ELC have shared a long history together. The relationship, while sometimes rocky, was shaped around a vision of environmental learning and stewardship. Today, the ELC is a coveted indoor and outdoor classroom for college-wide programs such as Water and Environmental Technology. It is also continues to attract regional universities and local community educational partners to the site. As the restoration project moves forward into the summer of 2017, the college is pausing to reflect on the history of this place and the many people who shaped its shores.
In his memoir “Transforming Lives,” CCC past president emeritus John Keyser wrote, “The ELC developed early in the college’s history under the leadership of President John Hakanson, as a response to intense community interest in developing new strategies for living in harmony with nature.”
The ELC has a rich history as an educational resource for the college, regional schools, industry and the community. Located on the site of a former Smucker’s processing plant, the ELC was created to demonstrate what people could do to reclaim industrial sites, address storm water issues and restore wildlife habitat in urban areas.
The idea of creating the ELC gained momentum in 1973, when a group of students under the leadership of Leland John, an art instructor, formed a committee and drafted a plan. “At the ELC, art, community and the environment came together in a singularly unique way, celebrating all three because people were willing to work together for the benefit of their creation,” ELC founder Jerry Herrmann said.
Herrmann had the uncanny ability to recruit volunteers and talent to the ELC. One of his more infamous efforts was recruiting the Oregon National Guard to excavate the site; transforming it into what we know today as the “ecology ponds.” Herrmann always dreamed big when it came to the ELC. In 1977 he hired Nan Hage to design the center’s first pavilion. Hage designed the building to enhance the environment. It was built in 1981 and cost a mere $10,000. Being astute recyclers, Herrmann and Hage got a much of the materials donated. All of the cabinets and flooring are Malaysian mahogany. The boards are ballast from the bottom of ships.
Recycling became a driving force for the visionaries. Herrmann developed a recycling depot at the ELC for the community. It soon became a full-service recycling center, putting the ELC on the map. In fact, it was one of the most successful recycling depots in the state at that time, handling up to 100 tons of material a year.
Stories were also recycled at the ELC. In 1984, storyteller Dean “Hawk” Edwards worked alongside volunteer coordinator Leslie Rapacki to develop and care for Hawk Haven, also known as the birds of prey exhibit.
“The goal was to create an educational wildlife habitat on an industrial site. In essence to recycle the industrial site itself,” Hage said. Clearly they did that, and then some.
In 1987, Lakeside Educational Hall was completed, providing a place for the community to gather and take classes. “Eighty percent of the construction material in this facility was simulated wood made from recycled plastics,” Keyser said. The lighting was recycled from marijuana grow lights donated by local law enforcement officers.
The next visionary to land on the scene was astronomer and scientist Ken Cameron. It was his connections that led to the Haggart family dome donation to the ELC. The Haggart Observatory, as it is now known, opened March 7, 1989, so the community could view the partial eclipse of the sun occurring that day.
As recycling revenue began to decline in the 1990s and CCC subsidies dwindled, the ELC suffered setbacks which strained its relationship with the college. The ELC was in need of a new champion. After a number of interim executive directors, Keyser, who was then president, stepped forward to put the ELC back on track by providing several years of stable funding and critical infrastructure updates. This investment attracted environmental educator John LeCavalier, who was hired in 1996 to reactivate the ELC.
LeCavalier’s leadership was instrumental in attracting like-minded partners, like Larry Beutler of Clearing Magazine, to the ELC [Ed note – CLEARING actually moved to the ELC several years before LeCavalier began his tenure as director.]. His contributions also include developing new programs and initiatives. He further established an endowment for the ELC that would keep it resuscitated for many years to come.
LeCavalier believes the ELC has a life of its own. During his interview he noted, “There is nothing to indicate that the tenacity of this physical place at the headwaters of Newell Creek and the people that have been involved it will not continue well into the future.”
When LeCavalier departed due to budget cuts in 2006, Alison Heimowitz took over as the ELC’s education coordinator. Even as a part-time instructor, Heimowitz developed critical environmental educational partnerships that are still in place today. Together, these partnerships bring hundreds of children to the site each year to learn in an outdoor living laboratory. Heimowitz was also the spark plug behind the writing and designing of the Metro Nature in Neighborhood Capital Grant, which was approved by the Board of Education in 2013. The CCC Foundation Board of Directors also stepped forward to support the grant by committing to raise the critical match to make the grant possible.
The Newell Creek Headwaters Restoration and Education Project brings together a range of public agencies, conservation groups and community members to engage in a collaborative impact initiative. This project brings to life the best of what the ELC has been and provides hope for what it still can be. After hundreds of hours of conversation with the multitude of community members who consider themselves friends of the ELC, the relevancy of this place and what it has to offer is as important today, as it ever was.
When asked about the relevancy of the ELC’s future, the retired U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley said quite simply, “Environmental learning never goes out of style.
If you would like to stay engaged with the ELC and the restoration and education efforts, visit www.clackamas.edu/ELC.