Nature Center

This section explores some ideas for a possible Norman nature center – one that might be located adjacent to the Sutton Wilderness.  For some time we had been considering ideas for a nature center in Norman and had considered various sites to maximize public visitation and volunteering.  It appears that some of the sites we initially thought would be best are not likely to become available or would have other problems, and that a site we initially rated as less desirable may be the only suitable site remaining.  We discuss here the possibilities for this site, along 12th Ave East (Sooner Rd) and north of Robinson.

Before speculating on possible aspects of a Norman nature center – (section 10 below)  – we introduce the reader to nature centers and some of their common characteristics.

1.  What is a nature center?

Just what is a nature center?  Many Normanites may not have seen one, though there are two relatively close to Norman.  The closest one, though quite small and open only certain days of the week, is the Discovery Cove Nature Center at Lake Thunderbird (13 miles from downtown Norman).  The other one is the Martin Park Nature Center, located 35 miles from downtown Norman, in northwestern Oklahoma City.  Somewhat farther away are nature centers at Lake Murray State Park near Ardmore and one in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.  Such nature centers typically have buildings with permanent and rotating educational exhibits, and may be staffed by a combination of paid staff and volunteers.  They have trails with informative plaques, bird feeders, and depending on the landscape, may have boardwalks and wildlife blinds.  Essentially, nature centers are places where people go to learn about and be immersed in the natural environment (to the extent possible in today’s suburban environment). Since nature centers are focused towards seeing wildlife and their environments they usually prohibit dogs or other pets, swimming, and discourage power walking or jogging  (see the rules for Martin Park or the Oxley Nature Center in Tulsa for examples).    Such activities are not really compatible with nature observation, which tends to require slow walking with keen eyes and ears to detect subtle motions and noises.

Most nature centers include the following activities through their exhibits or trails:

1) describing the natural aspects of the region (the types of plants and animals living in the region and the geology and climate)

2) discussing basics of ecology (the interactions of plants/animals/their environment) and the habitats of the region (streams, lakes, grasslands etc)

3) relating local conditions to global ecology and habitats (e.g. how are Oklahoma grasslands similar/different from those in Africa or Asia?  Why or why not?)

Other topics that may be included in a nature center are:

4) aspects of the local climate, its variability, and how plants and animals are adapted to it.  Is the climate changing?  How might such changes affect the plants and animals of the region?

5) concepts of sustainable living – topics like recycling, land use, renewable energy, water quality and its use.

6) environmentally-friendly gardens – how to garden and landscape with plants that are wildlife friendly (little/no pesticides or herbicides).

7) other topics of nature, including astronomy (especially our solar system), oceanography (especially for coastal nature centers), or geology/soils.

A Norman Nature Center could have additional attributes as noted here.  A powerpoint describing aspects of a possible Norman nature centers can be found here.

2.  Some myths about Nature Centers

1) Nature Centers are only for children.   Adult education should never end.  Many topics related to nature and the natural world are quite complex and not understood or certainly not appreciated by children, High School students, and a great many adults.  The adult voting public needs to understand the basics of many issues that are inherently “environmental”.  Everything from the “how and why” of Oklahoma earthquakes, how climate change may affect Oklahoma, to how cattle ponds and even oil and gas wells have altered the biodiversity of Oklahoma.

2) The Public School system provides all of the necessary education for our children so nature centers are unnecessary.  This, of course, every parent knows to be not true – otherwise all children would have equal educational backgrounds at the end of their schooling.   Parents and teachers matter.  However, age also matters.  For example, children cannot appreciate the importance of economic knowledge until they start earning their own money.  Topics like investments and retirement planning etc are topics that are best re-examined  later in life when adults (finally) begin to realize their importance.  Similarly, there are many environmental topics that are better appreciated and understood by adult audiences – like reducing pesticide and herbicide use via wildscaping with native plants, conservation easements to protect natural landscapes in Oklahoma, adopting renewable energy sources instead of using coal and natural gas, and global warming and whether we should do anything about it.  These activities may directly impact taxes, the cost of energy, and the future conditions under which we live.  Such environmental topics can and should be an important part of a nature center’s activities.

3.  The following are not myths

The world is going Global fast – everything is interconnected on this earth – economies, diseases, environmental issues.

The world is going “green” fast.   Interest in topics like the quality of our food, our sources of energy, the conservation of natural resources and less understood concepts like biodiversity are at all-time highs (though not as high as they need to be).

4. Greenhouses as a component of a Norman nature center

Because of Oklahoma’s frequently windy and cold winter weather, a nature center would benefit from an Greenhouse complex with indoor gardens that would likely see peak visitation during the fall, winter, and spring months.  The agreeable environment would encourage longer stays, with the focus of the greenhouse gardens being educational.  It would be a connection of the Sutton Wilderness Nature Center with the larger world, blending themes of geography, plants, and different global environments.   The greenhouses could be physically connected to the nature center or in close proximity with an all-weather connection.

An enclosed botanical garden would either need cooling during the summer months – usually effected by a combination of shading and evaporative cooling, or it could be designed to be open-air (with partial shade) during the warmer months.  The option of several smaller greenhouses, ideally with weather-enclosed connecting corridors,  might be preferable, since different climates could be maintained in each.  Thus a greenhouse that serves as a respite from the winter cold might be relatively dry and warm.  Such a greenhouse might also be attached to (or include) a small footprint cafe to encourage lingering.  Educational posters and displays would supplement the plants on display.

Examples of conservatories of relatively simple construction can be seen here.  Such greenhouses can range from 15 X 30 ft to 40 X 100 ft or more.  A Norman Nature Center botanical complex might be comprised of several of these units, each for specialized flora.  A greenhouse could be as simple as a steel frame industrial building with translucent polycarbonate roof panels, or it could be any number of polycarbonate structures available on the commercial greenhouse market.

The main objective of the greenhouses would be to describe flora that cannot be readily seen in Norman.  It would not be for cultivation of crops, which can be done “easily” in backyards of those motivated to do so.  Rather the goal would be to expose visitors to the diversity of plants across the globe – especially those that cannot survive Norman winters.

5.  Does Norman need a nature center?

Many Normanites could rightly wonder why we need a nature center given that the Sam Noble Natural History Museum is right on the OU campus and available to the public.  The proposed nature center would serve a different function – though there would certainly be collaboration between the facilities and staff.  The main characteristics of the two facilities can be summarized as follows:

Sam Noble Natural History Museum:  1) Complex fixed exhibits (e.g. ancient life) are expensive to produce and thus require semi-permanence.  These cannot be changed seasonally or due to changing public interest at short notice. 2) Substantial entrance fee (currently $8 for adults) discourages frequent visitation, especially by families.   3)  Has an Oklahoma focus; a nature center would not be so tightly limited in geographical scope and would cover topics not strictly “natural history”.    4) lacks outdoor natural landscapes that encourage nature “exploration”.  There is an outdoor grassland but this area has limited diversity (lacks water).

Sutton Wilderness Nature Center:  1) Relatively simple rotating exhibits to keep repeat visits “fresh”.  2) Some small live animals for closer inspection. 3) Bird feeders and wildlife blinds for close viewing.  4) artificial ponds and landscapes designed to encourage wildlife viewing in all seasons. 5) Numerous talks and presentations on a wide variety of natural history and environmental subjects 6) Greenhouses to provide all-year botanical exhibits.

6.  Expected visitation by the public

Public use of a Norman Nature Center is expected to be relatively high and steady throughout the year.  Lower outdoor activities in winter might be offset with more frequent inside talks and greenhouse visits.  Summer activities might be focused towards early morning or late afternoon or even evening activities.   Repeat visits by Norman citizens are expected to be frequent because of the low/no cost entrance fee, the all-year indoor exhibits, and the constantly changing nature of the outdoor aspects of the center.  The Nature Center should be open nearly every day, from early in the morning to near sunset (with the conference rooms available for evening talks and classes).  The natural world is constantly changing, with nesting and migrating birds, the seasonal appearances of prairie flowers and grasses and the changes in the forest foliage.  From one day to the next weather conditions will affect the number of turtles basking on logs or the activities of birds.  And since many animal encounters are random events – such as spotting a snake or lizard crossing a path, repeat visits will increase the likelihood of glimpsing “hard-to-see” creatures (or flowers that are only open for a short period).  Even winter visits will have their unique aspects, with winter nights being longer, and starting earlier, for astronomical viewing at a possible astronomical observatory.

7.  Friends of Sutton Wilderness and nature center volunteers

Key to any successful nature center is an active docent community that will help educate visitors and provide talks or short courses.  The Norman community is fortunate to be able to draw on a wide variety of educators and scientists to help provide this outreach.  To provide a venue for this, the Nature Center will need at least two meeting rooms – appropriately embellished with posters and other materials related to natural history.  A more careful assessment and survey will be needed to determine the required capacity of such rooms.  However, occasional overflow audiences could be supported via videoconferencing to other rooms (for example at the Norman Public Library) or via live web streaming.  In fact, live web streaming of talks might be the best way to reach many people, as would an online catalog of freely-available recorded talks.

Short courses and lectures can be carried on throughout the year, both on weekends and during weekday evenings to attract adult audiences.  Summer activities should include “camps” for children and short courses for teenagers to explore different natural history subjects.  Some of these might require a modest fee.

8.  Nature Center “Outreach” – bringing the “nature center” to Norman communities

Even the best Nature Center will not be walking distance from every Norman community and for most people it will require a drive to visit.  Thus, for many Norman residents it will not be a place to visit every afternoon or stroll through near sunset on a routine basis.  In this section we discuss some activities that can bring the nature center ideas into Norman communities in different ways.  We believe will be both affordable for the City (compared with other City activities) and are likely to have high impact on the Norman community – in terms of routine visitation.

Almost all Norman City parks follow a standard pattern, with child play areas, pavilions for picnics, large mowed grassy areas for ball play, with larger parks having baseball backstops or perhaps soccer nets. While some parks are intensively used others get little use – and most parks are very infrequently used during the cool winter months.

Here we describe two ideas that may be of widespread interest to the Norman community.   The first relates to modifying sections of some city parks to encourage more natural landscapes. The second suggestion involves putting greenhouses in select city parks for neighborhood use.  This latter idea may be somewhat complex to implement, yet still inexpensive compared with recently adopted components of the Norman Forward initiative.   These two ideas are discussed below.

Idea 1:  Wildscaping portions of select city parks

One idea – originally coupled to the development of a Nature Center (but that could exist independently) – is to improve environmental awareness among Norman’s citizens by setting aside portions of some city parks for development of environmental education / awareness activities. To do this would require:

1) defining areas of little use in select parks
2) stopping the regular City staff mowing of the grass in these areas.
3) establishing a kiosk or all-weather signs to describe some aspects of the developing “wildscape”.

The idea is to let a portion of the current park property revert to a more natural condition, so that residents of the neighborhood have access to a small, somewhat natural landscape patch within easy walking distance.

Many people might reasonably ask whether such a “nature patch” has any value.  The intent is not to protect nature from development or to preserve any particular species.  In our experience, a forest patch only 50 ft across, populated with native vegetation, attracts a variety of birds and insects that simply don’t appear in normal neighborhood parks – especially in the newer parts of Norman that are without extensive trees.  Even older Norman neighborhoods lack the understory plants that attract certain birds.   A natural grassland patch  – perhaps surrounding a developing forest patch, would serve to attract even more wildlife than would ever appear in most Norman backyards – and certainly more than the Bermuda grass lawns of most Normanites.

The main economic advantages of wildscaping certain parks are 1) there is little cost involved, though all-weather signs, kiosks, and a few short trail segments would be required to have an educational impact, 2) only a small percentage of any park’s area would be wildscaped so the impact on other activities in the park would be minimal, 3) routine mowing costs would be reduced, though this might be relatively small.  The main educational objective of wildscaping these parks is to make natural environments more readily available to Norman residents – without the need to drive anywhere. They would serve as one aspect of “community outreach” of the Norman Nature Center – should such a center be developed.

Some parks are more suited than others for wildscaping as they already have existing patches of native trees or perhaps artificial ponds that are developing relatively natural cattail beds that support some wildlife. By themselves, such naturescapes are not educational – it would be the signs or kiosks that would provide information on the animals and plants of the site. Such signs should be rotated seasonally for greatest impact and regularly monitored for use (or abuse). Neighborhood points of contact would be needed to keep City staff informed of the conditions of the facilities, though routine maintenance visits to these parks by city staff might be sufficient.  City maintenance personnel might need training related to wildscape “maintenance”.

A selection of possible parks that might be suitable for such wildscapes are depicted in Google Earth imagery here.

Idea 2:  Adding greenhouses to select city parks

Another idea to generate public interest in a Norman nature center, and more importantly, nature in general,  is to establish greenhouses in select city parks for the use of the community.   The objective would not only be to develop interests in sustainable gardening and wildscaping techniques, but also to serve as a neighborhood extension of the Norman Nature Center.  Such smaller greenhouses are economical and can fit easily within many Norman city parks without compromising other park activities.

Some neighborhood greenhouses could be specialized – with some for winter growing of vegetables while others would be for displays of select groups of plants that are not winter hardy in Oklahoma.  A sturdy all-weather “high-end” polycarbonate double-wall greenhouse, capable of withstanding marble-sized hail, might cost about $30-40 per square ft (including concrete base and gas heating). Less-expensive fiberglass or poly coverings reduce the cost – to perhaps $10-20/ sq ft but are less resistant to the weather and sunlight.  Ten “high-end” 1000 square ft (40 ft by 25 ft, or 50′ X 20′) greenhouses with heaters, water, permanent pads and additional amenities (perhaps similar to some of these) might cost on the order of $500,000.  This is about the same cost as enclosing one tennis court at Westwood Park.

A community greenhouse need not be filled entirely with plants. It could have tables, chairs and a coffee pot for “warm-up’s” during the winter; it could (and should) have informational plaques, posters and some books for perusal that are related to the greenhouse contents.

Many details and questions arise naturally. How would security be provided – to prevent theft of plants of other items? (Possible community volunteers to staff during key periods? Possible Home Owners Association oversight and control?). How would space be allocated within the greenhouse? How to mix different plants – for example those requiring high and low humidities? How to handle insect pests etc? The answers are not all clear and would require meetings in each neighborhood to develop a consensus of what is of greatest interest to that community.  My personal perspective is that such greenhouses should not be used for growing tomatoes and other vegetables that can be done easily during the warm season outdoors. More novel, and ultimately more interesting to most people, would be to see tropicals, cacti and many other unique plants that would serve as permanent exhibits for the community and provide more of an educational perspective.  But I recognize that most Norman residents probably wouldn’t (at first) fully appreciate such use of a greenhouse. So some partitioning of space would likely be needed.  Some greenhouse examples from the internet can be seen here.

Despite the uncertainties noted above, this activity would likely involve more residents than many other activities supported by the City of Norman. Almost everyone with a house does some gardening. A greenhouse extends such activity through the winter. And a neighborhood “botanical corner” would likely reach more people, more often, than a centralized botanical garden.  Putting a coffee pot, sink, bench (needed for gardening activities in any event) and table in the greenhouse would provide an ideal meeting place for the local community on a cold and windy Fall, Winter, or Spring day.

A Google map view showing possible locations for Norman community greenhouses can be found here.  Naturally, if the greenhouses proved popular, more could presumably be added.

9.  Funding these “nature” components

Norman Forward is an initiative to improve various quality-of-life aspects of Norman.   Norman Forward can roughly be divided into a Sports-related components ($49.5M), a Library component ($57M) and a Parks component ($39M).  Of the currently proposed $145 million cost of the various projects only $2 million is directly related to a “nature park”.  Most of the other components of the $39 million “Parks” portion of Norman Forward are more related to improvements in City Parks that favor physical exercise.  Fully one third of this sum ($13M) is slated for the Westwood Pool renovation ($12M) and tennis court improvements ($1M) at Westwood. Much of the remaining Parks-component budget is planned for the development of park infrastructure (parking, bathrooms, picnic shelters, trails etc).     In this section we make the case for why a nature center and associated outreach components should be part of Norman’s future.

Many Normanites are probably not aware that the Sutton Wilderness is not owned by the city of Norman, but rather the state of Oklahoma.  The same is true of the Griffin Sports complex.  This will have to be purchased by the city of Norman, and the funds required are expected to be on the order of $10 million (actual number uncertain as of this time).

Where would funding come for these nature-oriented initiatives?  One possibility is from within the proposed budget for Norman Parks improvements that is included in Norman Forward.  This is possible by:

1) Adopting Option “A” for Ruby Grant Park.  Option A includes $2M for park improvements while the variants of Option B require $6M.  Selecting Option A – the option that appears to be favored by the public, would make available $4M for other activities.

2) Scrutinizing some other Norman city park improvements – from which probably $1M could be saved.

These two items should make available at least $5M, which would cover the cost of neighborhood greenhouses (max $1M for 10), wildscaping at 10 parks (no more than $500K in signage, kiosks, and some limited trails), and perhaps $3.5M for a nature center and botanical complex. The numbers would have to be calculated carefully but it appears that it is feasible to fund these different nature-focused components from within the original Norman Forward plan for improvements in City Parks.

One might envision a multi-stage implementation of the above proposed activities.  The wildscaping activities would be easiest to begin – they mostly require the stopping of mowing (on selected patches) that is now routinely done in these parks.  The greenhouse option could be established in stages, with perhaps several different greenhouses being established to evaluate potential problems in maintenance and use.  Then, with some experience, additional greenhouses could be added as public interest justified.  A nature center would be a relatively complex structure, though the landscaping and greenhouse components of the center might not be large compared with the commercial building construction costs that will characterize other components of Norman Forward (e.g. the library and aquatic centers for example).  Even a relatively large nature center complex with multiple greenhouses would likely be small project compared with the library, aquatic center or the Westwood pool improvements.

Interestingly, in the “About” section of the Oxley Nature Center in Tulsa (much larger than the Sutton Wilderness) are found these words under the “History” section:

“It is important to know that this special place was the result of citizen action and involvement with the City government to push for, fund and build a worthwhile facility that the City would not have done on its own.”

We should not expect that such a nature center and associated facilities will spontaneously spring from the goodwill and ideas of City of Norman staff and council members.  It will only happen if there is a sufficient groundswell of interest from the Norman community to encourage it to happen.  Despite the relatively low costs compared with many other City of Norman facilities and activities, selling this concept to a Norman community may not be straightforward, and will require building awareness of the many positive aspects of such a nature center.  Unless, of course, a willing donor with a strong interest in nature education steps forward to fund the activity!  Norman appears to have no shortage of individuals willing to fund university sporting facilities. Does it also have sponsors for nature education?

10.  A possible Norman Nature Center adjacent to the Sutton Wilderness

The image below shows our current thoughts for a nature center location (though many other options exist).  It occupies a former waste disposal pond that has for the past 15 years been covered and grassed.  It is currently used as a practice area for disc golf players and is surrounded by chain link fence with some gaps for access.

slide2

A more detailed schematic showing the terrain and hypothetical ponds (blue-ish), berms (brown-ish) and education building/conservatory/meeting rooms (red) is shown in the image below.  Access might be via the south side, where parking lots already exist and there are spaces for something like 120 cars.

The area being suggested is visually isolated from the dog park and soccer fields because it is raised relative to the terrain to the south, west and north.  Only at the Sooner Rd side is the terrain similar in elevation to the land immediately outside.

The suggestion for the actual nature center building to be on the far west side is, in part, to isolate it from noise from Sooner Rd.  The site should be further isolated by berms on the east side so that traffic is not visible from the main part of the nature center.  Likewise noise should be reduced, though not eliminated, by adding berms.

slide4

Idealized schematic of Nature Center and environs.  Shallow ponds (blue) have islands, winding berms visually separate areas  and forest would develop in eastern area to isolate the center from Sooner Rd.  Red is the nature center building complex that would include displays, inside wildlife blinds, offices and classrooms and white rectangles are greenhouses to present non-winter hardy plants and educational displays.

The schematic shows lakes being added – both would be shallow and designed specifically to enhance the presence of wildlife.  A smaller lake, to the northwest of the nature center building (red), would be for closely approaching birds and other wildlife via feeders and wildlife blinds.  The nature center building would further isolate this pond from Sooner Rd and Robinson St road noise.

Obviously the details of any such nature center would require many iterations among the many potential groups that might like to see such a center established.  Our original thoughts were to establish a joint nature center and botanical garden in the same complex and this might still be feasible since the Sooner Rd property is larger than what we had originally envisioned.  This presumes that the City of Norman will eventually purchase the Griffin Park property from the State of Oklahoma, including the Sutton Wilderness.