Nature Center in survival mode
Funding cuts reduce hours, leave one full-time staffer

       Down to one full-time El Paso County Parks employee and a four day/22-hour week, the Bear Creek Nature Center faces an uncertain 2009, according to interviews last week with Paula Megorden (that one employee) and Shirley Gipson, president of the Naturalist Docent [volunteer] Organization.
       “We're going to give it our best shot and do the best we can to keep it open,” Gipson said, “because it's a real asset to the community.”
       Starting in January, the environmental display/interactivity center at 245 Bear Creek Road will be open to the public Wednesday through Saturday. The hours will be 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. except Saturday (9 to 4). The parking lot and surrounding trails in Bear Creek Park will remain available at all times.
       Through 2008, the center had two staffers and was open five days and 35 hours a week. County commissioners, fighting money problems across the board, halved Parks' 2009 budget, which led to cutbacks at both county nature centers (Bear Creek and Fountain Creek).
       The main issue will be putting on educational programs (some of them income-earning) for schools, summer camps and others, especially during the busier months of March to October, Megorden and Gipson pointed out. Seasonal help has traditionally been hired to assist with such programs, but with no county money available this year for that purpose other revenue sources to pay them will need to be found.
       In a related change, Todd Marts, formerly the Bear Creek supervisor, has been given control of both centers as well as the County Fair and the CSU Extension Service. As a result, he will not be on hand too often at Bear Creek, Megorden noted.
       The docents, who already help out in numerous ways, are looking at ways to expand their responsibilities. One idea that's being explored is for volunteers to take on certain paid-staff duties. But Gipson said this can only go so far, because someone like Megorden is a career naturalist with knowledge and training beyond most docents.
       Nature Center cuts had been threatened in mid-'08, but the Docent Organization donated $85,000 to keep the past arrangement unchanged through December. The group, consisting of about 1,200 people who contribute in some way and 100 who volunteer time at the nature centers (some as much as 200 hours a year), raises its money through membership donations, grants and program fees.
       The county recruits nature center volunteers, with quarterly training sessions; however, only a few new docents usually emerge from these efforts, while simultaneously attrition cuts into the existing inventory, Gipson noted. Potential volunteers can call the center at 520-6387.
       Megorden expressed optimism about finding creative solutions in the weeks ahead. Brainstorming with the docents will be going on during January and February; meanwhile, “we will maintain customer service as much as possible and hopefully make it to March,” she said. “I'm looking forward to it. It will be a challenge for sure.”
       Gipson does not want to think about the possibility of the center being unable to continue. “Kids in school rely on it because it offers things they can't get in the classroom - an outdoor experience plus professional staff trained in explaining the environment to children,” she said.
       The Bear Creek Nature Center has existed more than 30 years. After a fire destroyed the original building, a 58 percent vote of the public in 2000 approved $400,000 in funding for the current facility.

Westside Pioneer article