Call of the Wild

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

By Margaret Ahrweiler


Perhaps it mirrors supply and demand, but as open space in populated areas shrinks, recreational nature programming is growing. Environmental-oriented programs are increasing every year with park district, county and state facilities adding new programs every year to meet demand.


Could it be that Little Billy and Cindy spent their idyllic youths traipsing through the woods and fields and want to duplicate that experience for their own children? Reality check: Little Billy and Cindy, now Bill and Cynthia Suburban Parent, were more likely to spend their days traipsing through the local mall, says one pro whose district's environmental programming has blossomed.

"We live in an increasingly urban environment, and the latest generation didn't have open spaces to explore in their childhoods," says Bob Dunsmuir, executive director of the Wheaton Park District in Wheaton, Ill., a Chicago suburb. "Even worse, it's becoming harder to preserve outdoor knowledge. It was once passed down by parents, who took kids hunting, fishing and camping. We don't see that any more."

On the up side, though, these urban parents have discovered a strong desire to reconnect with the natural world. When it comes time to teach their own kids about the real birds and bees, they are turning to the pros—naturalists, rangers, interpreters and other park professionals—to learn about their environments. Back-to-nature programs are filling up rapidly, with patrons clamoring for more.

An outdoor papermaking activity at Custer State Park in Custer, S.D.

Figures from the Association for Interpretative Naturalists, a national group of nature professionals, demonstrate this. According to Tim Merriman, the association's executive director, the group was founded in 1954 with 40 members. It now boasts 4,800 members, with research indicating that about 20,000 paid interpreters are working nationally, along with an army of more than 500,000 unpaid volunteers staffing nature programs at parks, zoos and museums.

Why this impressive growth?

"We're replacing grandma and grandpa [to teach about the outdoors]," says Merriman wryly, who notes that when he asks groups who visited their grandparents' farms, people under 40 almost never raise their hands.

A return to their natural roots and a renewed interest in life's most basic elements have also been spurred as a response to Sept. 11, Merriman adds.

"When they feel threatened, they return to nature," he says. Merriman also theorizes that as people in affluent societies have their basic needs met, they then turn to higher pursuits, such as aesthetics and education as part of the classic hierarchy of needs.


Along with that desire to reconnect with nature, outdoor programming has grown as park districts re-examine their mission, Dunsmuir says.

"We're changing the definition of recreation," he says. "Sure, soccer and baseball are recreation but so is bird-watching and exploring the natural world."

He notes that in Illinois, less than 1 percent of the native prairie ecosystems that once covered the state remains, so that scarcity has driven up interest.

Dunsmuir's district has served as a model for nature-based programming, with the star of its natural shows its 135-acre Lincoln Marsh Natural Area. In 1979, the district purchased the first chunk of acreage for the marsh when it realized that unspoiled areas, not just sports fields, would become scarce before anyone knew it and figured that programming possibilities abounded.

"Preservation and programming go hand in hand," Dunsmui says. "We had always talked about a teams course, and the Marsh was a good spot for that. We thought about school programs for environmental education—why go out of state when you could go to your own back yard?"

Through budget allocations and fund-raising, the district added a teams and ropes course, which it markets to schools, youth groups and corporations; nature trails; interpretive signage; and a shelter with a fire ring that serves as its main gathering site. With word of mouth and exposure from school programs, the Marsh staff has grown from one jack-of-all trades to a staff of six in peak summer months.


Programming for preschoolers has grown most dramatically, says Kelly Joslin, interpretative naturalist at the Marsh.

"You can have a huge impact on children with their first experience in nature," Joslin says. "You want to foster that sense of wonder."

Preschool programming depends heavily on using the senses, acting out animals, small-fry songs and games, and general silliness with a nature bent. This fall, Lincoln Marsh Kids-n-Critters classes include Daddy Longlegs, Muskrats, a Mouse Walk and Winter Sleepers. In the summer, the Marsh hosts about 300 children from preschool through middle school for its popular day camps.

Joslin also promotes family programming to develop that same sense of wonder—and fun—among all ages. With the popular night hike series, groups ranging from babies to grandparents look for bats and owls, hear animal calls, find stars, and learn about nocturnal creatures, with plenty of activities along the way and a campfire with marshmallows or hot chocolate at the end. Family programs, Joslin says, help adults learn not to be afraid of the outdoors and feel that they don't need to know what everything is to enjoy themselves.

Dispelling those fears is one of the keys to leading people down the path to nature, notes Sandy Fejt, a naturalist with the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, part of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County in suburban Chicago.


While Willowbrook was originally founded in 1956 to care for injured and orphaned wild animals, it has changed its mission over the years to help DuPage residents understand those animal's place in nature and to dispel fears about them. Residents once called to remove a den of foxes from their backyard, Fejt says. Through the awareness created by nature programming, people now view the animals' place in a suburban environment that still supports wildlife.

Willowbrook has also found that self-guided programming helps visitors enjoy its facilities at their own pace, allowing them to make their own fun in short bursts appropriate for different age levels. Mailboxes with laminated, activity-filled sheets guide visitors through the permanent displays of wildlife and the nature area, with woods and pond, behind it.

Programming can also expand visitors' ideas of what makes nature fun. While it's easy to teach the "warm and fuzzies," nature professionals can show that nature can be fun beyond cute animals, says Fejt, who counts among her specialties teaching children the joy of bugs.


While preschoolers and families make easy targets for nature programs, Joslin notes that reaching out to older children and teens poses more of a challenge, as nature takes a back seat to team sports. To fill that gap, innovative programs can reel that fickle crowd back into the woods.

How, for example, can soccer compete with the chance to handle buffalo guts? That's one of the program highlights at Custer State Park in Custer, S.D., as more than 1,200 middle-school students participate in programs related to the park's annual buffalo round-up each year. According to Bradley Block, Custer's chief of interpretation, the wide-ranging buffalo program with a number of different stations can entice middle schoolers to drop their veneer of cool. In one area, the students examine picnic tables laden with buffalo parts—stomach, feet, horns, bladders—and match them up with products similar to those that Native Americans might have made out of those pieces of buffalo. At another spot, students pile onto a truck scale to figure our how many people would equal the weight of one bull buffalo. And elsewhere, park staff clock students' fastest sprints to see if they can match the top speed of a running buffalo (since the beasts can hit 39 mph, Block hasn't found a kid who can match it yet.) Those same kids can often be seen later in the year bringing their families back to the park, which boasts around 73,000 acres and a standing herd of 1,500 buffalo.



Much of the nature programming found today is fairly straightforward, with guided hikes and bird-watching treks among the most popular. But naturalists' creativity is no longer limited to their presentations, with the growth of programs that bring nature to the public in decidedly different ways.


From Florida's state parks:
  • 1876 Cow Camp—step back in history and learn the life of a Florida cowhunter.
  • Doctors, Lawyers and Weekend Warriors Surf event—competition for surfers who may be over the hill but not out of the picture
From the Johnson County, Kan., Parks and Recreation Department:
  • Beginning fly casting
  • Galyan's Outdoor Skills Day—take the call of the wild test and learn survival and safety tips. Test primitive hunting tools, archery, fire-building techniques
  • Survival hike: Do you have the right stuff?

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?

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.


To discover how nature and urban growth can coexist peacefully, visit the DuPage County Forest Preserve District at 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.


The education vs. entertainment ratio, along with the label attached to nature programming, can vary in different parts of the country according to the political climate. Custer State Park's Block says that the phrase "environmental education" doesn't get much play in his area since it could be taken as a more liberal philosophy than intended in a place where people earn their living in logging and mining. Emphasis on conservation also can vary depending on staff philosophy, local leanings and audience, Block notes. His approach is more straightforward. He explains the resources, the natural environment, the cultural activities and the stories that relate to it, leaving guests to draw their own conclusions.


At Sebastian Inlet State Park, however, rangers can emphasize conservation during their presentations, Perry says, due in part to their audience. Residents of that area take pride in their stewardship of the land, he explains, and feel strongly about maintaining the habitats of their beloved turtles and manatees.

The split between education and entertainment also colors how nature professionals approach their jobs, and even what they call them. In recent years, a debate has arisen over the difference between naturalists and interpreters or interpretative naturalists. Traditionally, the term "naturalist" has meant someone who knows the names of all that grows and moves.

"You found them a leaf, and they could name the tree," Block says. "You played them a bird song, and they could name the bird."

But with the increase in an entertainment mindset, parks have been emphasizing interpretive skills, with thematic presentations, storytelling and strong communication skills, where guides can help participants forge both emotional and intellectual connections, Merriman says.

Block, who oversees a staff of about nine, along with 15 to 25 volunteers, advises that while you can teach staff the natural history or cultural facts of a program, it's difficult to teach interpersonal and communication skills. In part because of this, interpreters and naturalists can come from a variety of academic backgrounds, ranging from earth sciences to entomology.

Nature programs are popular for all seasons, like the winter hayrides at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

But however they label themselves or view their jobs, the professionals staffing nature programs share a common characteristic: passion for their environment and a passion for sharing that love that precedes their career paths.

Many of today's naturalists and interpreters caught the nature bug by volunteering or bided their time in other careers until job growth accommodated their true calling. For example, Willowbrook's Fejt began volunteering at the facility 13 years ago while working in commercial real estate. Eventually she realized she could make a career of it and went back to school to earn a degree in geology. Lincoln Marsh's Joslin, meanwhile, couldn't find a use for her degree in marine biology in Chicago's suburbs and worked in banking until, after volunteering there for a year, was hired by the Wheaton Park District in 1995.

Passion for the outdoors—without exception (or coaching) this phrase surfaces again and again. Those who turn nature into fun and games have it and want to share it, and that passion may be fueling the growth of their field.

"I once led a canoe trip down the West Fork of the Des Moines River in Iowa," Block recalls. "It was for students from an alternative high school—troubled kids. We were teaching them how to fish, too. I'll never forget one young man. You could see the light bulb go on. He looked at me and said, 'You get paid to go canoeing and fishing and that kind of stuff? You're like a teacher, only your classroom is the outdoors?' I said, 'yes.' I always wondered what happened to that kid."

Could be, he's got a job like Block these days, fueling another round of passion for the outdoors.

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