Restoration and Renewal

Restoration and Renewal

Environmental Learning Center:
Restoration project heals environment, community and college

Written by Shelly Parini, CCC senior executive project manager

Lakeside Hall and Observatory

T3he 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:

  1. Enhance water quality within the Newell Creek watershed
  2. Increase the capacity of the ELC to serve as an educational resource for college students, schools and teachers, industry members and families
  3. Provide passive recreation for east metro communities
  4. 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.

The Visionaries

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.”

ELCquote1The 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.

The Guardians

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.”ELCquote2

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 Future

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

Building a Citizen Science Center: A Framework

Building a Citizen Science Center: A Framework

Citizenscience1by Shamin Graff
Lake Katherin Nature Center & Botanic Garden
Palos Heights, IL

She sat quietly for several moments, watching and waiting. Suddenly, a streak of yellow flew by and then another. She quickly snapped a few photos on her phone as they flew off. Excitedly, she uploaded her photographs to iNaturalist, the first goldfinches that had been added to the biodiversity project she joined. She loved to see as all the new species being added by her and other citizen scientists like herself.

Across the United States, large institutions such as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum of Natural History have developed spaces where visitors can watch scientists in action and ask questions about the work being done (Smithsonian Institution, 2013; The Field Museum, 2008). At the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, an entire wing dedicated to the pursuit of science recently opened, which includes opportunities to engage visitors in citizen science (North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2012).

If your institution is anything like mine, creating a space for science and engaging visitors in citizen science programs may seem to be a greater project than time or financial resources can support. However, the resources put into a successful program can pay dividends over time for both the institution and its visitors. Knowing this, we dedicated a small space in our nature center to science and chose existing citizen science programs that could be tailored to meet the needs of our institution. The following is the evidence-based framework we created for doing so, based on extensive research that has been done in free-choice learning environments, including nature centers and museums.

The Case for Citizen Science
Citizen science is not a new idea, as participation in citizen science programs dates back to the 1700s in Europe where amateur bird enthusiasts recorded bird sightings (Dickinson, Zuckerberg & Bonter, 2010). Utilizing the Internet, today’s citizen science programs rely on crowdsourcing, or having large groups of people who each make a contribution, to collect data or classify previously-collected data. With many people sharing the work in this way, large data sets can be compiled that otherwise would not have been possible (Dickinson et al., 2010). These large data sets can not only be used to monitor a population or phenomenon, but also serve as a starting point for new questions to be researched (Bonter & Hochachka, 2009). For example, there is a project that asks participants to help transcribe old maritime records that can then be used to study climate change ( and several that ask people to help identify animals caught on camera traps. Both tasks require enormous amounts of man-hours and would be not feasible without the help of citizen scientists.

Besides the research benefits, participating in citizen science projects also have potential to increase scientific literacy. It can be difficult to assess, but research has shown that content knowledge can be gained through participation (Brossard, Lewenstein & Bonney, 2005). When participants are specifically instructed in science inquiry and the significance of the research being done, it may be possible to affect participants’ understanding and attitudes towards science in a positive way (Trumbull, Bonney & Grudens-Schuck, 2005; Jordan, Gray, Howe, Brooks & Ehrenfeld, 2011). Though more research is needed (Jordan et al., 2011), using citizen science to engage visitors over the long-term may also be a way to increase appreciation for nature and a caring attitude toward nature and biodiversity (Brewer, 2006), something we all strive for in environmental education.

Citizenscience2Creating a Space for Science
Although your institution may not have a wing to dedicate to science, there may be an area that can be used to introduce visitors to science, provide reference materials and perhaps even offer scientific equipment for visitors to use. For us, we needed a space that allowed visitors to overlook not only our site, but also our planned bird feeder installation and this guided our selection. As research in free-choice learning environments has shown, the physical attributes of a learning environment can affect visitor learning in both positive and negative ways. Visitors often feel more comfortable in smaller exhibit areas (Maxwell & Evans, 2002), so do not be discouraged by limited space. Although it is tempting to create an immersive environment where visitors can feel they have been transported to someplace else, this may actually overshadow any educational messaging (Pedretti & Soren, 2006). Instead, working to minimize distractions can increase visitor attention and potentially visitor learning (Maxwell & Evans, 2002). For us, that meant separating the area from the high-traffic by the entrance and shielding noise from the adjacent area for young children. Simply rearranging and strategically placing furniture created the ideal space for us. We also included a comfortable seating area to provide visitors a place to rest and that may encourage longer stay-times.

Choosing a Citizen Science Project
Choosing the citizen science project that fits the needs of your institution is important to the future success and support of the program. We chose projects with a local focus that visitors could participate in at our site in order to fit our institution’s mission. There are a wide variety of citizen science projects to consider. SciStarter ( provides a searchable database of citizen science projects around the world that may assist you in finding a suitable project.

Institutional resources should be considered when choosing a project. The time investment for some projects will be greater than others. Some projects require frequent reports, sometimes even daily. Still others have fees associated with participation, require specialized training, or use equipment that must be specially purchased.

It is also crucial to consider the target audience when choosing a project. Many projects will not easily lend themselves to being used with visitors. Some data collection may be too intensive for the visitor experience while others may have strict restrictions on reporting. In these instances, you may choose to participate as an institution and then share your contributions to the project with visitors. This could be expanded by offering visitors a similar activity to participate in, as we did with Project FeederWatch, a bird monitoring program through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Also, some projects may have data collection periods that may not coincide with times of highest attendance. For example, Project FeederWatch only runs from mid-November through early April each year (Bonter & Hochachka, 2009), when many nature centers in northern climates have a decline in attendance.

Developing Materials
When developing site-specific materials for your chosen citizen science project, you should consider including an explanation of scientific inquiry and the role visitors are taking by participating. This may help them develop a better understanding of how science research is conducted and the importance of citizen science (Trumbull et al., 2005). Research at science museums has shown that visitors often come away with a changed view of science, but it is one that sees science as a set of facts, not a collection of knowledge that is always evolving (Rennie & Williams, 2006). We can help science literacy by showing visitors that though some scientific knowledge has been rigorously validated, there is still much that is not fully understood, even after years of study. Without addressing these misconceptions directly, we may unknowingly undermine science literacy goals.

Our institution does not have naturalists or docents who are available to facilitate the citizen science area, a major hurdle for a project like this. To support self-directed learning and participation in citizen science projects, easy-to-follow materials are recommended (Banz, 2008), such as signage, brochures and worksheets. These self-guided activities can also provide visitors with a framework designed to help them conduct their own inquiries, allowing them to see firsthand the nature of science (Allen & Gutwill, 2009). Hopefully, this will also promote repeat visits to the area and enhance learning (Banz, 2008).

Program Assessment
While developing a citizen science program, program assessment should be discussed. Simply having visitors participate was our initial goal, and multiple iterations of materials and methods are still being used to reach that goal. However, research on the impact of citizen science is limited and contributions are needed in both data and research methods (Brossard et al., 2005). If resources allow, assessment of content knowledge, scientific inquiry, impact on stewardship and changes in conservation values are highly encouraged, and are in the planning stages for our project.

The Framework in Action
At Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens (LKNCBG) in suburban Chicago, Illinois, the first implementation of a citizen science program following this framework is underway. With only three full-time staff members, resources are limited and minimal funds were used for the project. However, as our mission seeks to “promote environmentally sustainable choices through education, outdoor experiences and scientific research,” it has been important goal for 2013 to begin to introduce citizen science to the 26,000 visitors that come through the nature center annually (LKNCBG, 2013).

The physical space for our citizen science center was formed using a 130 ft2 area inside our nature center. The area provides a small reference library, comfortable seating and views of our bird feeders. There is literature for each citizen science project located in the citizen science center, along with worksheets and identification guides. There is also a chalkboard for visitors to record and share their data.

Three citizen science projects were selected to help us reach our goal. As an institution, we are participating in Project FeederWatch (, a program that collects bird counts at feeders. For visitors, we are offering a paper-based activity similar to the actual data collection for the project. We have also started a project online at iNaturalist ( that allows visitors to record observations of wildlife seen at our site in order to compile a biodiversity atlas. Finally, we have joined Project Budburst ( as a Botanic Gardens Partner to encourage visitors to gather data about seasonal changes in ten target plant species onsite.

These specific projects were chosen mainly to help build visitors’ ecological knowledge. Research has suggested that as cultures become more affluent, this ecological knowledge is lost (Pilgrim, Cullen, Smith & Pretty, 2008). The projects we have chosen offer an opportunity for visitors to learn about species and their roles in local ecosystems, which we hope will help address this loss of knowledge. Also by increasing ecological knowledge, visitors may become more aware of their local environment and the issues it faces (Cooper, Dickinson, Phillips & Bonney, 2007), potentially leading to greater support for restoration and preservation of natural lands, including our own site.

Although it is a modest start, and interest from visitors is just beginning, we hope that citizen science will become an integral part of the visitor experience to LKNCBG and will inspire other environmental education institutions to develop similar programs. We expect that it will take time to build a culture of science at our institution and this is just one step in that process. In the future, we plan to evaluate our program through visitor surveys to not only improve our own programs, but also to share with the environmental education community.
Taking the First Step
A citizen science center may be a great way to further your institution’s mission and goals. Using this research-based framework as a guide, it is possible to create a place to engage visitors through citizen science, even when resources are limited. Through these programs, environmental education institutions can play a key role in increasing their visitors’ science literacy and ecological knowledge. With time, visitors may start taking a more active role in stewardship and provide greater support for local environmental causes. It all starts with taking the first step.


Allen, S. & Gutwill, J. P. (2009). Creating a program to deepen family inquiry at interactive science exhibits. Curator, 52, 289-306. doi: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.2009.tb00352.x

Banz, R. (2008). Self-directed learning: Implications for museums. The Journal of Museum Education, 33(1), 43-54.

Bonter, D. N. & Hochachka, W. M. (2009). A citizen science approach to ornithological research: Twenty years of watching backyard birds. In T. D. Rich, C. Arizmendi, E. Demarest, & C. Thompson (Eds.), Tundra to Tropics: Connecting Birds, Habitats and People (pp. 453-458). Proceedings of the 4th International Partners in Flight Conference, McAllen TX.

Brewer, C. (2006). Translating data into meaning: Education in conservation biology. Conservation Biology, 20, 689-691. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00467.x

Brossard, D., Lewenstein, B., & Bonney, R. (2005). Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science project. International Journal of Science Education, 27, 1099-1121. doi:10.1080/09500690500069483

Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Phillips, T. & Bonney, R. (2007). Citizen science as a tool for conservation in residential ecosystems. Ecology and Society, 12(2), 11.

Dickinson, J. L., Zuckerberg, B., & Bonter, D. N. (2010). Citizen science as an ecological research tool: Challenges and benefits. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 41, 149-172. doi: 10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-102209-144636

Jordan, R. C., Gray, S. A., Howe, D. V., Brooks, W. R. & Ehrenfeld, J. G. (2011). Knowledge gain and behavioral change in citizen-science programs. Conservation Biology, 25, 1148-1154. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01745.x

Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens. (2013). 2012 Annual Report.

Maxwell, L. E. & Evans, G. W. (2002). Museums as learning settings: The importance of the physical environment. The Journal of Museum Education, 27(1), 3-7.

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (2012). New wing opens with 24-hour celebration Friday, April 20. Retrieved from

Pedretti, E. & Soren, B. J. (2006). Reconnecting to the natural world through an immersive environment. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 6(1), 83-96. Abstract retrieved from

Pilgrim, S. E., Cullen, L. C., Smith, D. J. & Pretty, J. (2008). Ecological knowledge is lost in wealthier communities and countries. Environmental Science and Technology, 42, 1004-1009. doi: 10.1021/es070837v

Rennie, L. J. & Williams, G. F. (2006). Adults’ learning about science in free-choice settings. International Journal of Science Education, 28, 871-893. doi: 10.1080/09500690500435387

Smithsonian Institution. (2013). FossiLab. Retrieved from

The Field Museum. (2008). DNA Discovery Center. Retrieved from

Trumbull, D. J., Bonney, R. & Grudens-Schuck, N. (2005). Developing materials to promote inquiry: Lessons learned. Science Education, 89, 879-900. doi: 10.1002/sce.20081

Shamim Graff is a volunteer at the Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens in Palos Heights, Illinois.

Ear to the Ground – Saul Weisberg, North Cascades Institute

Ear to the Ground – Saul Weisberg, North Cascades Institute


This interview is the first in a series that will be a regular feature in Clearing. Check back each month for a new interview with a leading environmental educator in the Pacific Northwest.

Saul Weisberg is executive director and co-founder of North Cascades Institute. He is an ecologist, naturalist and writer who has explored the mountains and rivers of the Pacific Northwest for more than 30 years. Saul worked throughout the Northwest as a field biologist, fire lookout, commercial fisherman and National Park Service climbing ranger before starting the Institute in 1986. He authored From the Mountains to the Sea, North Cascades: The Story behind the Scenery, Teaching for Wilderness, and Living with Mountains. Saul serves on the board of directors of the Association of Nature Center Administrators, the Natural History Network, and the Environmental Education Association of Washington. He is adjunct faculty at Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. Saul lives near the shores of the Salish Sea in Bellingham, Washington with his wife and daughters.

Clearing talked to Saul on April 12, 2010:

You were the co-founder of the North Cascades Institute in 1986 and have been its executive director ever since. What changes have you seen in the field of environmental education over the years? (more…)

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

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

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.