The Regional Review

Volume II - No. 4

April, 1939

A Case for Nature Study in State Parks, by Raymond Sydansk

From the early reaches of history until comparatively recent times man's knowledge of the workings of nature has been a necessity of life itself. While with the advent of our present civilization, the sum of knowledge of natural science has been augmented greatly, it has not been made generally available to the average individual. This is due in large part to the fact that for the last hundred years ever increasing numbers of people have spent virtually their entire lives in the artificial environment of cities and towns.

That the short time man has been away from direct contact with nature has not been sufficient to break down his inherent desire and need for an understanding and appreciative association with nature is evidenced by the eagerness with which he participates in well directed programs of nature study such as are offered at the North Chagrin Reservation of the Cleveland Metropolitan Park System; Oglebay Park, West Virginia; the Bear Mountain section of Palisades Interstate Park, New York, and the various national parks which offer guide service. It is important to note also that in recent studies of the recreational preferences of park visitors, which have been made by the National Park Service in cooperation with the several states, nature study ranked as a popular interest with 22 per cent of the 25,000 reporting, being outstripped only by such favorites as swimming, touring, fishing, camping, picnicking, hunting, boating and hiking.

Records of actual park use during 1937-8, on the other hand, reveal a negligible participation in nature study as an activity. In the majority of the areas on which records were compiled it was not even listed. When it is considered that the primary purpose of the park movement is that of providing people with an enjoyable association with the natural environment, this negligible participation in the activity which can and will contribute most to their understanding and appreciation of nature becomes doubly significant. There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy between the desire for an understanding of nature and its fulfillment.

First, and probably most important, is the fact that nature study is an activity involving the acquisition of knowledge and skills as the principal media of satisfaction. In order for it to become popular with the masses of people who visit natural areas, their latent interests must be stimulated and given intelligent guidance, particularly until they have acquired a rudimentary knowledge of what is to them a strange environment. This means interpretive leadership of a high order. It may be provided entirely by volunteer naturalists from schools, colleges and other community sources, as is done on the Union County, New Jersey, parks; or it may consist of a staff headed by a professional naturalist who enlists the assistance of qualified volunteers in conducting the program, a method which has proved so successful at Bear Mountain and Oglebay Parks and at the North Chagrin Reservation, or, finally, it may be made up almost en tirely of trained professionals, as is the case in national parks. From whatever source the leadership is obtained, it should have a thorough grounding in natural science and should be capable of translating knowledge into simple and vivid realities rather than setting it forth as dry technical facts.

There are many methods through which leadership can function in carrying out a successful nature study program. Probably the most effective media are those offered through nature tours under qualified naturalists supplemented by lectures and popularly written literature setting forth interesting stories concerning the natural phenomena of an area, and by the judicious use of museum displays. This method has been the basis of the highly successful National Park Service nature education program. Self-guiding nature trails offer still another medium which has proved eminently successful at Bear Mountain and similar areas.

The stimulation of interest in nature education often can be begun most effectively in the communities served by a natural area. Here the illustrated lecture becomes of vital importance. The organization of nature clubs of one sort or another provides a means of crystallizing and focusing the interest of the people and of directing that interest toward the opportunities offered by the park. The ultimate aim of the leader should be to inculcate in the participant such an interest in nature and such a desire for knowledge concerning it that every aspect of nature acts as a stimulus to his perceptions and his thought. His back yard with its lone tree, its grass, weeds and insects, his neighborhood playground and park and the open country outside the limits of his city can become, for the enthusiastic student, sources of inspiration and study.

While leadership can function without facilities, it becomes more efficient if certain aids are provided. Even a casual review of the facilities offered in most state, metropolitan and county parks reveals a surprising lack of those which are fundamental to a nature study program. There are picnic tables, stoves and shelters, bathhouses, beaches and diving towers, boat docks, boat houses and boats, stables and horse trails, cabins, lodges and even hotels, but satisfactory museums, places for lectures, labeled self-guiding nature trails, and other such facilities are to be found in only a relatively few instances on state and local parks.

Two basic facilities are needed to implement adequately the nature study program. They are, first, a system of hiking trails, one or more of which may be labeled for self-guidance, and, second, a building which forms a lecture center and general headquarters for the nature program, and which also may house those museum facilities which can supplement so valuably the other activities. The trail system should be keyed in, if possible, with those sections of an area where people congregate, such as beaches, picnic grounds and lodges. If this is done, a few appropriate and stimulating signs will enable the naturalist to arouse the interest of many recreationists who come to picnic, swim, or participate in other popular activities. There are relatively few park visitors, particularly from urban centers, who are woodsmen enough to find the beginning of a trail "near the dam," a "half-mile down the road," or "back of the lodge," even if they are sufficiently interested to want to find it. A plainly marked and easily traveled hiking trail from the main day use area to the museum will contribute materially therefore to expanding interest in nature study by making it convenient for the novice to take the first step.

The museum acts as a stimulus of interest and as in introduction to the natural resources of the area and should portray a balanced cross-section of the plants, small animals and geology which may be observed on hiking trips in the vicinity. Live exhibits are excellent media for instruction, have a great popular appeal, and may be used to advantage as methods of identification and as a means of demonstrating interrelation ships of plants, animals and geology. It should be emphasized, however, that the nature museum in a nature area is not a nature study objective, but rather a complement to the lecture, the guided trip, the labeled trail, and unguided study out-of-doors.

A self-guiding nature trail continues the function of the museum by presenting natural features in place and by providing, in an attractive and stimulating way, enough information concerning these features to arouse further the student's interest. The sign also should tell a story; it should show the relationship that exists between a particular object and the environment. A simple testing trail likewise has proved to be a popular medium of furthering the purposes of nature study as an activity. Here the student is enabled to test the results of his visits to the museum and his trips over the labeled trail.

There are other facilities such as aquaria, arboreta, campfire lecture circles, and even display pits or cages for larger animals, snakes and turtles which have been found helpful, when held within proper limits, both in arousing curiosity concerning nature and in the satisfaction of this curiosity. Whatever the facilities furnished, they should be planned in advance as a unit in order to establish the proper relationship. In this connection, the services of a competent naturalist, either voluntary or professional, are indispensable since he alone will be able to work out intelligently the natural stories an area should attempt to set forth. The state park program is still within its infancy, relatively speaking, but a number of states already have initiated nature study programs. Iowa is one of the most recent systems to inaugurate a leadership program. The methods used in that state and the results so far obtained are set forth clearly in an article, Iowa State Park Recreational Use Program, by M. L. Hutton, Director of the Iowa State Conservation Commission. He reports, in part:

"The Sioux City advisory committee continued its interest in Stone Park with renewed vigor. Under the committee's direction, a different organization sponsored a nature walk each week with local specialists serving as lecturers. Mr. Crabbe, Stone Park naturalist, organized nature walks, edited an information bulletin published by the Sioux City Recreation Department, and, for the information of the general public, provided data and identifications along the trails and throughout the park.

"The Botany and Extension Service of Iowa State College served in an advisory capacity to Mr. Jones, naturalist at the Ledges State Park. A leaflet entitled Nature Notes, edited and distributed by Mr. Jones, was published by the State College Extension Service. Its popularity was evidenced by the fact that out of approximately 300 Nature Notes distributed weekly within the park only 10 were reported by the custodian to have been discarded within the park boundaries during the season. Many nature walks, self-guiding nature trails and weekly exhibits, provided by the naturalists, proved exceedingly popular. As a result of the interest engendered, the Ledges Nature Club, composed of local citizens, was organized to assist Mr. Jones and continue the naturalist program. A 1939 program has been outlined.

"A committee representing five communities within a 20-mile radius of Backbone State Park assisted Mr. Folderboor, park naturalist, in securing splendid publicity and in planning a special Park Appreciation Day. This naturalist secured the cooperation of conservation club members and college science departments for special events. He found his services as nature guide in constant demand.

"Nature study activities at Lake Ahquabi State Park in 1938 increased greatly over the preceding season. Mr. Wilcox stated that last season's need for the encouragement of participation in a nature recreation program was reflected in this season's attempt to supply the demand through his leadership.

"Each of the naturalists has regarded himself as a community naturalist. Lectures have been given to civic and youth groups outside the parks. Publicity has included radio interviews and broadcasts. Close contact has been kept with the advisory committees. Some of the advisory committees have continued their activities during the school year. Programs of the naturalists have included camp fire councils and educational movies..."

From experiences such as are outlined above, it may be assumed safely that nature study as an activity has a valuable contribution to make to the enjoyment of natural areas and to an understanding of the principles of conservation and, for this reason, should be given a greater emphasis in future park planning.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002