Nurturing Nature

New growth blooms at the Dallas Nature Center at last

On a normal fall afternoon at the Dallas Nature Center, the only sounds one expects are those made by the resident wildlife and the rustle of wind-teased leaves. Today, that gentle chorus is being interrupted by the buzz of saws and drills and the groan of a small tractor straining to ferry building supplies along a newly blacktopped road.

Intrusive though it might be to the serenity of the 633-acre outpost on the southern edge of Dallas County, it is music to the ears of 42-year-old executive director Bryan Hutson. Finally, after two years on the job he left the Rio Grande Valley to assume, the sounds of long-overdue progress have arrived.

It hasn't come easy.

At the Mountain Creek Parkway entrance to the Nature Center, a weathered sign announces that the completion date for an ambitious capital improvement program would be the winter of 1999. Funded by city and county bond programs dating to 1995, $500,000 in planned improvements went on the drawing board. New water and sewer hookups would replace the use of well water and septic tanks, a classroom facility for visiting schoolchildren would be built, roads would be improved, and restroom facilities would be added. However, as the winter of 2000 fast approaches, the promised improvements are unfinished.

But after drawn out construction delays, battles with contractors, and too little evidence of genuine enthusiasm for the project on the part of city and county officials or, for that matter, the center's former administration, progress is being made. Much of it since Hutson arrived.

By Thanksgiving, contractors have promised, the new children's educational center, being built near the old ranch house that has long served as the headquarters for the facility, will be ready for its grand opening. Already, the winding road from the entrance to the parking lot has been re-paved. The water and sewer hookups are in place. Additionally, thanks to donations, grants and a growing roster of volunteers, there are new picnic tables, new trail signs, and the area around the entrance has been newly landscaped. Volunteer Boy Scouts have added another half-mile hiking trail to the 10 miles already available to visitors. On the drawing board is a 1.5-mile wheelchair-accessible trail that a recent $37,000 Texas Parks & Wildlife grant will make a reality, soon-to-begin remodeling of the center's gift shop and offices, and even the establishment of a prairie-dog colony in an isolated corner of the facility. (The colony is being relocated from Fort Worth because of construction plans at the site of the animals' current home.)

Only recently a $25,000-per-year grant for three years from the Meadows Foundation made it possible to add a new director of education to the tiny staff charged with operating the quarter century-old respite from Dallas' concrete bustle. While waiting for naturalist/teacher Steve Kirkindall to arrive, the center's entire workforce includes director Hutson, groundskeeper Domingo Mendez, and part-time bookkeeper Rosalind Reese, who drives from Canton once a week.

To those who might complain that the revitalization of a facility co-owned by the city and county limps along a slow track, it is worth noting that the Dallas Nature Center receives no operational funding from the city or Dallas County. While such environmental preserves as Old City Park, the Dallas Arboretum, and Samuel Farm are rewarded annually in the Parks & Recreation Department's budget, the Nature Center, a non-profit organization, is maintained by donations, membership fees, volunteer help, and whatever grant money it receives.

Last year, in fact, Hutson approached city officials with the proposal that the Nature Center be included in the Parks & Recreation Department's budget, suggesting a modest annual maintenance allotment of $50,000. The proposal was rejected.

When he arrived on the job in 1998, Hutson had been preceded by four directors in a space of six years. "Things," he admits, "were not in great shape." One of his first official functions was to tour the center and make a list of its eyesores. "I simply asked myself what impression a first-time visitor would have," he recalls. Quickly, his to-do list covered two legal-pad pages. In light of the tight budget he had inherited, it was, in truth, little more than a wish list.

Patience, he would soon realize, would be a major requirement of the job. "What I've learned," he admits, "is to focus on the small advancements instead of agonizing over how long it is going to take to get everything done." The important thing, he says, is that there is movement in the right direction.

"I've been associated with the Dallas Nature Center in one way or another for almost as long as it has existed," says David Donohue, chairman of the center's board of directors, "and I've seen a lot of ups and downs. For the first time in quite a while, I'm now seeing a real 'up' happening."

And much of the credit, says the Dallas environmentalist, is due director Hutson. "I'll put him up against any executive director in the country," Donohue says. "He has brought excellent people skills, financial skills, and a real devotion to the task he was hired to perform."

Under his guidance, the Nature Center has undergone much more than cosmetic improvement. Taking his message to service groups, educators, and corporations, he's doubled the membership (where supporters can choose from an annual donation range of $30 to $500), adding an increase of $30,000 to the operating fund. Eighty Dallas area schools take advantage of educational field trips and classroom programs, collectively adding another $12,000 to the budget. And the active pursuit of grants has enabled Hutson to anticipate a sizable financial windfall in the years to come. "When I came here," he says, "we had a budget of $85,000. Next year, thanks to grants and donations and the center's own earnings, we anticipate it will be in the neighborhood of $250,000." Hutson hopes the additional money will be quickly spent returning the center to a first-class facility.

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