Knowing One Big Thing: The Role of the Nature Center in the Next Millennium

By Mike Weilbacher
From The Best of Clearing, Volume V

It’s a very rainy day in the middle of Aesop’s fables, and Hedgehog is stuck outside without a dry place to hide. He finds a den, but Fox already occupies it. After much begging and whining, Hedgehog squeezes in alongside Fox, raises her prickles, and a needled Fox quickly vacates his dry den to the now contented Hedgehog.

A fox knows many things, concludes Aesop, but the hedgehog knows One Big Thing: how to use prickers.

Which brings us to fuzzy little beasts called nature centers, a.k.a. environmental education centers. I carry an exquisite love-hate relationship with these beasts. As a freshly-scrubbed, greener-than-a-tree-frog college graduate, I was offered the irresistible opportunity of not only directing a small nature center tucked into the middle of central New Jersey, but directing it when its nature center building had just been erected! Imagine my luck, walking into a vacant building as my first full-time job and inventing a nature center.

In the years since, I’ve had the pleasure of working at and visiting quite a few centers, and I know that my corner of the eastern seaboard is blessed with an abundance of centers. By contrast, when I recently spoke at Montana’s environmental education conference, I was stunned to learn that Big Sky country was only that year building its FIRST nature center. I hope the concept takes root in the West the way it’s proliferated in the East.

But I worry about nature centers. Always underfunded, many centers suffer from severe physical plan maintenance concerns, are almost perpetually understaffed, the staff almost always crammed in too-small spaces not originally designed as offices, stuff stored in every nook and cranny of the too-small building. The exhibitry is often tired, the touch table full of objects that should have been removed months ago, the touchy-feely boxes mostly empty, and the few live animals mostly immobile in cramped aquaria. Light bulbs are often shot, terrarium text is missing letters, the information presented anachronistic, irrelevant — scientific name, adult length, average lifespan. Horribly, and frankly, unforgivably, nature center are easily 100 years behind the state-of-the-art science exhibitry techniques practiced by their big-city peers in science centers and museums.
And yet, for all that, never has the mission of the nature center been as vital as it is today. No, “vital” is not the right word. Imperative. Critical. Necessary. In a perfect world, every single student in every single elementary school would have regular, ongoing access to a nature center, its staff, and its programs. Because in this hugely imperfect world we inhabit, something horrible is happening.

We live during perhaps the largest extinction event in natural history. Certainly, we are fueling the largest Holocaust since the Great Extinction wiped out dinosaurs, marine reptiles, ammonites, and more during the end of the Cretaceous Period. Evolutionary forces cannot keep pace with the changes we have wrought on the landscape, and pieces of the plane’s jigsaw puzzle are mysteriously vanishing daily. The web of life is unraveling: frogs dropping out of pristine ecosystems, large mammals in decline in many locations, coral reefs being dissembled and sold to collectors, white-tailed deer removing wildflower populations from Pennsylvania sanctuaries, the Amazon again set ablaze to produce more of those damn cows.

While there are many notable conservation success stories — peregrine and pelican, alligator and eagle — there are innumerable losses (one estimate is between 70 and 100 species daily).

The unfolding story of the extinction of life — the sinking of the global ark, if you will — is perhaps only one large mammal away from receiving the full world’s attention. When the last mountain gorilla or black rhino, two highly endangered creatures in politically unstable parts of the world, disappears, the headlines will begin, and that unfortunate mammal will jump-start a conversation we should have been having for decades. Here’s a prediction: in the next millennium, global warming and extinction will emerge as the environmental Scylla and Charybdis through which the world must navigate to survive, and the entire environmental movement will rally behind the great struggle of keeping the burning ark afloat.

In that context, then, the nature center will play an increasingly important role in the extinction story. Today, the zoo has claimed for itself — partly through creative public relations seeking to preempt the animal rights movement — the title of the ark, for zoos maintain professional staff working daily on preserving and building breeding populations of animals like gorilla and lemurs, pandas and vultures.

But the nature center movement must organize itself to become recognized and treasured for the One Big Thing it does that a zoo does not it preserves a precious piece of habitat, serves as an island of green in a sea of McAsphalt. That first nature center I worked at in central Jersey was surrounded on three sides by development, the fourth by a four-lane, concrete-barrier highway. To a migrating songbird, that park’s emerald canopy was a welcome neon sign; to resident birds, one of the few habitats left. As the suburbanization of America transforms everywhere into Nowhere so that Denver, Miami and Albuquerque all look just like, well, Jersey, as beige stucco townhouses advance like slime mold across the width and breadth of America, the preservation of a hunk of diversity embedded in a sliver of habitat will emerge as perhaps the largest contribution of nature centers to environmental quality.

Which rises an intriguing question: are nature centers and their staff up to this challenge?

Here’s the result of years of mulling. First, nature centers have spent too many years wrestling with the meaning of the phrase “nature center.” As nature study begat environmental education, so did naturalists evolve into environmental educators and nature centers transmogrified into EE centers. The reasons are many, and not necessarily a mistake. With the emerging mass awareness of environmental degradation in the late 1960s, our profession wished to be on the front line of environmental interpretation, and teach about energy use, lifestyles, pollution, consumption, conservation, resources, etc. As a college student in the early 70s, I rebelled against the teachings of my professor, one of the foremost American naturalists of this — or any — time. I, too, had bigger fish to fry that knowing which woodland bird sings “drink your tea.” Drink your own tea, thank you very much, I have a world to save. Nature centers gave themselves a face-lift, a work-over, and began re-naming themselves as environmental education centers, biting off a larger mission, interpreting in parallel both the wonders of nature and the destruction of the environment.

Trouble is, this large mission forces environmental educators to be so many Foxes, trying too hard to know too many things: when does the ozone hole open? Why do we recycle glass when sand is so plentiful? What’s the role of water vapor in global warming? Paper or plastic? Disposable or cloth? And the center’s exhibits begin to reflect this scattered mission, becoming a hodge-podge of disjointed displays that, in concert, present no unified vision of what an environmental education center is.

Worse, the public has never rallied behind a banner called “environmental education,” and the phrase still carries little or no resonance with mass America.

So allow me to suggest a smarter strategy: centers must, like corporate America, downsize and streamline. It strikes me that, with acres of land in which to teach and interpret, the role of the nature center and its staff is to know One Big Thing: the community of plants and animals that inhabits the special piece of the planet in which the nature center resides.

Yes, someone must teach about ozone holes and Amazonian fires, and there must be environmental organizations dedicated to getting good lifestyle information to large numbers of overconsumers. But it’s been suggested in this space before that perhaps the ultimate solution to our environmental ills is to install nature study as the beginning of any environmental education curriculum, and graduate a nation of naturalists. If we are to realize that vision, then communities need Master Naturalists capable of teaching this information, people who inhabit one place for a very long time and get to know that place so well, they know which wildflowers bloom in which location in what numbers, which frogs croak in which wetlands in what order, which migrating songbirds return in which succession — and scream loudly if those wildflowers or frogs or birds disappear.

This is a very high calling, and very necessary work.

The naturalists that inhabit nature centers must then master three skills: knowledge of nature, the ability to communicate that knowledge, and conservation biology. Naturalists must begin to learn which tools they can employ to manage their green oases correctly to keep their ecosystem’s fabric from further tearing.

If the nature center focuses on this mission, other problems centers face might resolve themselves. It becomes clearer, for example, what skills one is looking for in staff to hire. It gives the center a context for successfully appealing to the corporate and foundation community for higher levels of funding (after all, it’s not just nature study, it’s species preservation). And it gives the center One Big Thing to tell the public, over and over: we are the people who preserve the plants and animals that are your natural neighbors. For once, the public might finally get it. And support it.

So if you’re a nature center staff, feeling foxy and scatterbrained, here’s a strong recommendation: follow Hedgehog. Dig yourself deeply into your center’s burrow, learn One Big Thing, teach it masterfully, and teach it so well that it rallies the world behind solving the single most intractable dilemma of our time: how Homo sapiens will ever learn to share a sinking ark with any other species but himself.


Mike Weilbacher is the executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy, and is, he confesses, required to teach Too Many Things.