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Learning Nature's Lessons

Photos and text by Eric Fowler
Three Nebraska parks are transforming one of their missions -- to help their visitors learn -- into attractions through naturalist and outdoor education programs.

Twenty pairs of eyes were glued to the terrarium when Jeff Fields reached in and pulled out a Woodhouse's toad. As the youngsters

Youngsters crowd around Ponca State Park Superintendent Jeff Fields to see and touch a Woodhouse's toad during a Frogs, Toads and Turtles program at the park.
craned their necks for a better look, Fields said they could touch it, if they wanted. The first question was predictable.

"Am I going to get warts?" Another youngster volunteered, "I got warts from a toad."

The same question is asked at nearly every Frogs, Toads and Turtles program at Ponca State Park.

"It's an old myth," Fields said.

The chance to answer visitors' questions about nature is why naturalist and outdoor education programs are offered at Ponca and Eugene T. Mahoney state parks, Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area and other parklands. Most people who visit Nebraska's parks appreciate nature and want to learn more. But some have misconceptions.

Armed with a net in his search of frogs, toads and turtles, Joshua Schuster of Carter Lake, Iowa, jumps across a Missouri River wetland pool at Ponca State Park.

"We're trying to get people more in tune with nature," Fields said. "They're here because they enjoy it, so it seemed logical to try to enhance that experience through education."

In the Beginning

Nebraska's state park system was created to preserve areas with scenic, scientific and historical value and "to provide nonurban park areas for the inspiration, recreation, and enjoyment primarily of resident populations." In a broad sense, parks provide environmental education by being places where people experience the natural world. Many state parks and recreation areas managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission offer programs to help fulfill their educational missions, and in recent years staff naturalists have been added to create and lead these programs.

Fields launched Ponca State Park's Outdoor Education program when he became superintendent in 1998. Initially, he led weekend programs, ranging from birding and butterfly workshops to nature hikes, and talked about the flora, fauna and geology that make up the park's diverse ecosystem. On a viewing deck overlooking the Missouri River, he led discussions about river dynamics and the cultural history of the region.

At first, attracting participants was a challenge.

"We almost had to drag people into some of those programs," Fields said.

But by the end of the first year, it was obvious that much more could be offered. The next spring, a seasonal job previously dedicated to mowing and groundskeeping was converted into a position for a naturalist who was hired to lead educational programs duringthe summer months. It was a first for Nebraska's state park system.

This summer a naturalist, staff members and volunteers will lead about 50 different outdoor programs on topics ranging from natural and cultural history to outdoor skills.

Ellie Bermel of Randolph holds a nightcrawler during a fishing workshop at Ponca State Park.

Natural history - the biology and the geology of an area - is shared during hayrack rides and nature hikes that take visitors on tours of the park's wooded hills and Missouri River bottomland. During the annual plesiosaur fossil hunt, visitors search for pieces of a 95-million year old marine reptile that was discovered in 2001. "Last year they broke a piece of shale open and a complete fish unfolded … a fish out of the mackerel family from 95 million years ago," Fields said.

And of course, there is Frogs, Toads and Turtles, a popular outdoor education activity, which turns youngsters loose on a riverside wetland in search of amphibians and reptiles after first teaching them a thing or two about the creatures' habits.

"Little kids love frogs and turtles and toads because they can grab them and touch them and feel them," Fields said. "I'm sure when I was a kid, I liked to chase frogs. It's just one of those things."

The Lewis and Clark expedition has been the focus of many cultural history programs during the 200th anniversary of the explorers' historic journey up the Missouri River. But visitors also learn they can see Texas from the park, or at least the cemetery that remains where the long-abandoned South Dakota town of that name stood across the Missouri. Archery, fishing, campfire building, Dutch-oven cooking, and an activity called "Pointy Side Up," during which visitors learn how to set up a wall tent and a tepee, are a few of the offered outdoor skills classes.

Wildcat Hills SRA

The naturalist program at Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area south of Gering began soon after a new nature center opened there in October 1995. Superintendent Russ McKeehan presented programs on birds of prey, wildlife identification and other topics, and office clerk Sherry Oliver and local artist Mary Hunt conducted art classes. Together, they offered outdoor education day camps for youngsters.

During a nature walk at Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area south of Gering, naturalist Anne James shows insect paths in tree bark to first-grade students from Scottsbluff's Roosevelt School.

The Wildcat Hills staff has teamed with Educational Service Unit (ESU) No. 13 in many naturalist endeavors. Since 1997, the Wildcat Hills Nature Center has been the site of the ESU 13's Branch Out program, attended by more than 500 sixth graders from northern Panhandle schools for two days each fall. The park's naturalist and staff members from natural resources agencies present sessions about trees, birds and other nature subjects.

In 1999, improvements to Nebraska Highway 71 exposed numerous animal fossils near the park. This discovery of 22-million-year-old fossils created another educational opportunity. The park naturalist has led tours of the dig, and McKeehan hopes to bring a fossil-laden slab of rock to the nature center so visitors can recover specimens.

Khem Sukhram, part of a group of Junior Girl Scouts from Millard, leans to get a closer look at a horse's teeth during a workshop presented by Mahoney State Park naturalist Abbey Bauer (right) and wrangler Brian Moreland.

"We're not just sticking around the nature center doing flora and fauna," McKeehan said. "In the last three years, we've really branched out. We're giving people an opportunity to see and do things they wouldn't be able do in town. We have a lot of them coming back for advanced classes and different day camps. We have kids going nuts. Every time we have a day camp or something different to offer, they come because they're have so much fun doing it."

In 2002, the Commission hired a full-time naturalist to develop and present programs in the park and at other sites in the Panhandle. Since then, numerous programs for youngsters have been added, including one in which students dissect owl pellets to discover what rodents the birds have eaten. Adult classes have included canoeing, fly-tying and campfire cooking. Examples of other offerings are fishing clinics at Oliver Reservoir near Kimball, canoeing and kayaking classes on the North Platte River and float trips to the Dismal River. The naturalist also visits each school in the region twice a year to give classroom presentations, another cooperative effort with ESU 13.

Next year the nature center will add two program days in the springto accommodate hundreds of students from southern Panhandle schools. The ESU 13 naturalist has also offered additional programs at the nature center.

Mahoney State Park

Mahoney State Park first offered a few naturalist-led programs on weekends in 2000. Last year, Abbey Bauer began offering daily naturalist programs through the summer and other opportunities year-round.

The park now offers about 20 programs. A horse seminar is one of the most popular. Visitors learn about a horse's diet, how to care for a horse and how to put on a saddle and bridle. In another popular session, participants learn about reptiles that are native to the area, and one that is not - Iggy, the green iguana that calls the park's James Family Conservatory home. Other programs include insect, prairie and hummingbird workshops, nature hikes and fishing clinics. The park also published a guide to birds commonly found in the park.

This summer youngsters can earn a junior naturalist badge for participating in five naturalist programs and completing their choice of seven projects ranging from drawing a picture of an animal they saw in the park to picking up litter on trails.

Educational and activity programs are popular with families staying in park cabins or campgrounds, as well as with scouts and other youth groups.

For many youngsters, the activities are a change from a steady diet of the Internet, television and video games. Bauer said, "I think it gets kids really excited about being outside and coming to the parks that are available throughout the state."

Participation in Mahoney park's programs doubled last year, reaching 2,100 people. With more than a million visitors annually, Bauer said continued growth is expected. "For a park like Mahoney that already has a lot of activities, this offers yet another activity for the kids. And they'll be learning some skills that could be useful to them, whether they like to hunt or fish or hike or watch birds. I think if we get the word out and get people interested in it, it will be a huge success."

Ponca State Park

The outdoor education program at Ponca State Park has grown with the park. Since 2000, 1,600 acres of riverbottom land north of the park have been added. This improved access to a river ecosystem that had been largely inaccessible and has helped create what Fields now calls "a 2,200-acre outdoor classroom." Last summer, a backwater wetland in the new area was restored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Fields plans to offer naturalist-led kayak tours of the backwater, teaching participants both how to paddle and how the river functions. Using binoculars, visitors will get a close look at birds using the wetland.

Chris Olson helps his cousin, Abbie Peterson, shoot an arrow during an outdoor skills workshop at Ponca State Park. Bot are from Sioux City, Iowa.

Work will begin this summer on a canoe and kayak access point on another new tract of parkland, located a few miles to the north on the upper end of Elk Point Bend. Fields hopes the park or an outfitter will someday offer river kayak tours from the new access point to the park.

During the spring, paddlers might see concentrations of migrating waterfowl during the four-hour, seven-mile trip down the unchannelized river. In the summer, they might stop on the edge of a sandbar and watch piping plovers and interior least terns tend to their nests and feed on insects and minnows in the shallows.

In October, they might witness the southern migration of waterfowl with a backdrop of fall color. "There are some neat moments up on that stretch," Fields said. On September 24 and 25, Ponca State Park will hold its first Missouri River Outdoor Expo. Wildlife artists will display their works; vendors will show campers, boats, shotguns, bows, and other hunting equipment; and workshops will offer instruction about how to use some those wares.

Malissa Peterson of Sioux City, Iowa, throws a tomahawk during an outdoor skills workshop at Ponca State Park.

"I want to put up a duck blind and some decoy spreads somewhere on the river and have someone demonstrate duck hunting," he said. "That's tough to do in an indoor facility."

In a few years, Fields hopes to offer a mentoring program for aspiring hunters, including pheasant hunts in the park's grasslands, deer hunts in the woods and duck hunts in the backwater.

Ponca's naturalist position is seasonal, and a different person has been hired each year. While some see this as a handicap, it has so far been good for the growth of the program because each individual has brought new ideas to be tested.

The public is the ultimate judge, Fields said, and input from participants helps to determine which programs return the following season. Because many people make annual park visits, programs must evolve. Some changes are new twists to old offerings and others are entirely new activities. Many visitors inquire about programs when they make reservations.

Les Ernst, assistant superintendent at Ponca State Park, shows a coyote, skunk and other furs to participants on a hayrack ride through the park.

"You can't throw the same thing at them every year or they're going to get bored with it," Fields said.

One example is the nature hike held in a restored tallgrass prairie. Fields said, "We used to just go on a hike and talk about the prairie and that was it. Now we're giving the kids insect nets and field guides and sending them out to collect. Then we show them how to pin the bugs and add them to our collection. It's kind of a neat way to get people engaged. They come back every year and want to see what we've added to the collection."

The 2003 opening of the Missouri National Recreational River Resource and Education Center on park grounds further increased Ponca's educational offerings. Displays tell the story of the river. A library loans books, videos and other resources to visitors during their stays, and teachers may borrow items for classes. A classroom includes a collection of furs, fossils, rocks, frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, and insects found at the park.

Sometimes visitors get an up-close look at how cruel the natural world can be. Ellie Lapp and her mother, Libbie, of Kalispell, Montana, squirmed as they watched a leopard frog eaten alive by a false map turtle.

"It was gross, but kind of cool," Ellie said.

The popularity of Ponca's outdoor education programs has helped boost visits to the park from 260,450 in 1998 to 449,950 in 2003. Visits increased another 108,000 in 2004, spurred by interest in the Lewis and Clark trail and the opening of the new visitor center. Last year, 10,692 people participated in the education programs, up from about 3,000 in 1999.

"We learned a lot. It's really cool," said Malissa Peterson of Sioux City, Iowa, during a stay at the park last summer. Her family participated in the archery workshop, went on a hayrack ride and learned about Lewis and Clark. Her daughter, Abbie, caught a catfish from the Missouri River during a fishing clinic. "I like to play at the park," she said.

Ellie Lapp of Kalispell, Montana, watches a false map turtle devour a leopard frog in an aquarium in the naturalist room at the Ponca State Park visitor center.

Marilyn Goure of Omaha and her family took part in those programs and others during their stay. "That's why we came up here," she said. "I think we'll come again. We were really impressed."

Work began this summer on five of 28 new cabins that will be built at the park within the next few years. The park's long-range plan also calls for a lodge with motel-type rooms. These improvements are expected to make the park a year-round destination like Mahoney State Park and the naturalist position will become a year-round job.

The programs at Ponca and Mahoney State parks and at Wildcat Hills SRA were not the first attempts to create park naturalist programs, according to Roger Kuhn, an assistant director with the Commission who supervises parks. But for reasons ranging from lack of interest to budget constraints, they failed.

Other parks also offer educational programs. At Niobrara State Park, visitors take guided tours of the scenic Missouri River in a powered Zodiac raft. At Platte River State Park, nature hikes along Stone Creek, stargazing tours, and fishing clinics are conducted when requested by groups. At the Visitors' and Water Interpretive Center at Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area, people learn about the Platte River and the demands placed on it. At Indian Cave State Park, nature films are shown on Friday and Saturday evenings. Visitors to the naturalist room in Fort Robinson State Park's activity center examine furs, skeletons and mounts of birds and mammals found in the Pine Ridge.

Most outdoor educational programs are designed for younger audiences, but they will hold the interest of adults. McKeehan said adult chaperones at youth programs often are heard saying, "Wow," or "I didn't know that," or "That's cool."

Kuhn envisions someday adding programs at Fort Robinson, Chadron and Indian Cave State parks. "We, as a park system, want to expand or grow the naturalist and outdoor education programs we offer. We've slowly been doing that and where budget allows and where we think interest and the chance for success lies, we'll continue to do that," he said.

"I think it's important that people who come to the parks gain more knowledge about the resources we have and that we're trying to improve. One of the missions of the Game and Parks Commission is to protect and improve our natural resources. If we can educate people and let them know why these resources are important and what makes them tick and so forth, they will become supportive of that same mission."

And they will learn they will not get warts from a toad, too.

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