Nurturing Nature

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.

"For 24 years," says Donohue, "we've been a hand-to-mouth organization that has done little more than simply manage to exist. For the first time, I now see that changing for the better."

A former executive director of the center himself, Donohue says the goal is to raise a minimum of three years' operational financing in the next fiscal year. "By doing that, by getting into a position where we aren't always feeling strapped for money and forced to delay things that need immediate attention, I think we can really begin making strides."

"And," he adds, "maybe then we can pass on the Observer's annual 'Dallas' Best-Kept Secret' award to someone else."

Says Hutson: "For some time, the attitude toward the Nature Center had become one of 'if people come, fine; if they don't, that's fine too.' We're no longer thinking that way."

Located on what was once a ranch owned by Dallas businessman and ambassador to Japan, Clayton Wyman, the land was purchased in the early '70s by Fox & Jacobs, a company that envisioned an ambitious housing development. Because of the rough terrain, developers soon abandoned their home-building idea and opted to turn the property into a non-profit environmental research facility that would also be available to the public. In 1975, the property was turned over to the non-profit Greenhills Foundation, and the Greenhills Experimental Center opened its doors. In 1987, the name was changed to the Dallas Nature Center.

Despite the fact it remains a legitimate contender for any local best-kept secret prize, the center annually hosts 80,000 to 100,000 visitors.

"Last year alone," says Hutson, "we had visitors from 35 states and 11 foreign countries. What that tells me is that people interested in what we have to offer have heard good things about us."

That the center's volunteer force has doubled since he took over is no small testimony to Hutson's persuasiveness. "You take away the tremendous amount of volunteer help we get," he says, "and we'd be out of business." TXU employees, he notes, have spent long weekends improving the hiking trails and remodeling a temporary educational room that has sufficed while the new building is being completed; SMU students have volunteered time for mowing, weeding, and trash pickups; Boy Scouts have blazed new trails, seen to erosion control on others, and helped establish a new picnic area. Credit for new trail signs, benches and directional maps is spread among local corporate employees, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Dallas County jail inmates, and myriad other community service volunteers.

The new director estimates that in the past two years, the Center has seen $769,000 worth of improvements--$300,000 of it the result of volunteer work.

Jim Varnum, an engineering instructor at Richland College and a Nature Center volunteer for 16 years, says he's seen a big change in the past two years. "Bryan Hutson was just the person we needed," he says. "When workers give of their time, they want to eventually be able to see that they're participating in making something better."

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers