Feature Article - October 2003
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Call of the Wild

From beautiful blossoms to bugs and guts, nature programs are growing as people return to their roots

By Margaret Ahrweiler


TERRAPIN TOURISM
PHOTOS COURTESY OF ED PERRY/FLORIDA STATE PARKS/DIVISION OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
Sebastian Inlet State Park in Melbourne Beach, Fla.

Nature programs' increasing popularity means that those who promote it have been doing their job well, notes Ed Perry, park services specialist at Sebastian Inlet State Park on the Atlantic Coast in Melbourne Beach, Fla. Perry has been leading turtle walks there for 15 years. From 9 p.m. to midnight, in June and July, groups of 20 people learn about the turtles and their nesting habits, then walk the beach to watch endangered loggerhead turtles swim in from the ocean, nest, lay eggs and hatch.

"People are definitely more educated than they were when I started doing this 15 years ago," Perry says. "We get the same people coming back year after year, but they bring new faces with them. And those new faces are more knowledgeable."

Begun 24 years ago, the turtle walks have gained steam at Sebastian and several other locations around the Florida coast. A testament to its popularity and entertainment value: The park now offers turtle programs at Walt Disney's swank Vero Beach Resort, a few miles south of Sebastian Inlet. And while the turtle walks feature far more stringent guidelines than most nature programs, they fill quickly, often the same day as reservations open a month in advance. To avoid disrupting the nesting process, the park bars flashlights and flash photography. What's more, no restrooms grace the miles of beach, and guests stay up until midnight walking up to two miles through veritable walls of biting mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

But the payoffs are great: the sight of what look like prehistoric submarines, more than 3 feet across, lumbering up from the sea to make nests with their flippers and lay their eggs. As a turtle is about to return to the water, Perry often allows guests to touch it and have the eerie, phosphorescent epi-biota (colonies of tiny glow-in-the-dark organisms) rub off on their hands.

While there's no denying the lure of such dramatic sights, Perry notes that guides need strong people skills to draw listeners into the bigger picture of the programming.

"It's more than just sitting there and blurting out scientific facts," he says. "You have to know how to draw people in."

Perry's conundrum illustrates one of the largest questions surrounding nature programming: How much should you emphasize learning and how much should be just plain fun? And what do you call it anyway?

  
PHOTOS COURTESY OF ED PERRY/FLORIDA STATE PARKS/DIVISION OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
Sebastian Inlet State Park on the Atlantic Coast in Melbourne Beach, Fla., offers turtle walks where visitors can carefully watch endangered loggerhead turtles swim in from the ocean, nest, lay eggs and hatch.

SUBURBAN ADVENTURE
PHOTO COURTESY OF FOREST PRESERVE DISTRICT OF DUPAGE COUNTY

To discover how nature and urban growth can coexist peacefully, visit the DuPage County Forest Preserve District at www.dupageforest.org. DuPage County in Illinois was once rural until Chicago's suburban sprawl began encroaching, but a commitment to land preservation has always been a part of the county's culture. Although the county is virtually built out, its forest preserve district holds more than 23,000 acres of open land. Five sites—the Fullersburg Nature Center, the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, Danada Equestrian Center, Klein Creek Farm and Tri-County Park—feature full-time staff and dozens of programs ranging from hay rides through restored prairie to night hikes to sheep shearing at a turn-of-the century farm. Recent reports noted the district's $200 million operating budget dwarfs the $45 million budget of the entire Wyoming state park system.