“What’s growing on that tree?” a young boy asked.
Karen Carver, the Durango Nature Studies instructor that day, hadn’t even noticed the fuzzy material on the low branch. This was not part of the class curriculum. The fuzz was bear fur. Nearby, the youngsters found bear tracks.
Their attention was riveted. This was certainly better than being inside playing a video game. Right?
“You do have to take advantage of those teachable moments,” Carver said last week.
Nature is unpredictable, and it’s not always easy to survive out there. Despite many challenges, DNS has bucked the norm and clung to life longer than most nonprofits ever do. It’s celebrating 20 years of existence – not bad for an organization that nearly became a bird shop.
In 1992, Janet Kenna and Ann Rilling were introduced at a social gathering through a mutual friend. They had recently moved to Durango, and they were both looking for a way to earn income.
Rilling wanted to open a shop that catered to people’s love for wild birds. Kenna, who has a degree in environmental studies and a teaching certificate, suggested hatching a different plan. The story goes that Kenna, Rilling, Winston Dines and Caroline Johnson later brainstormed the concept around a dining room table, and Durango Nature Studies was born.
“I’m sure there was wine involved,” Kenna said with a chuckle last week.
The idea was to connect children and adults with the place where we live. Despite Southwest Coloradans’ relative closeness to nature, not everyone gets outside, and not everyone understands the relationships among plants, animals and the ecosystem.
“I’ve been kind of shocked at the number of kids around the area who don’t really spend that much time outdoors and aren’t that confident around nature,” said Gail Grossman, a longtime DNS volunteer teacher who nurtured its growth. “It’s so important for kids to love the outdoors and get down on the ground with bugs.”
In 2014, the organization is on solid ground, a fixture in the community. Surrounding school districts in Southwest Colorado and Northwest New Mexico take full advantage of the nature center near Bondad.
With such longevity, it’s maybe even taken for granted. Sally Shuffield, executive director since 2007, and her staff are in the process of writing grants and tweaking programs in preparation for 2015. It’s a never-ending cycle that takes never-ending vigilance.
“So many kids have gone through the program, people just expect us to be here,” said Shuffield, an Arkansas native who fell in love with Colorado on a school trip. “People just assume that it’s part of living in Durango, Colorado. ... They don’t really think about us not being there.
“To me, I see how tenuous it is.”
Certainly, it was tenuous when it first took flight in 1994, but Rilling, who now lives in Cortez, said it quickly set sail.
“It was something the community wanted and used,” said Rilling, who is now marketing and communications director for the Logan, Utah-based Association of Nature Center Administrators, a support organization for nature centers.
“Because everything was so welcomed, it seemed like things kept falling into place.”
But there were struggles, a major one being where to take the kids. A supporter along County Road 234 north of Elmore’s Corner had some land with a nice pond. The Elks picnic ground on Florida Road worked for a while. Rick and Karen Langhart’s large backyard was good, too, as long as the horses stayed away.
The enthusiasm was there, volunteers were committed. Said Carver, a longtime volunteer DNS instructor:
“We needed a home.”
Acreage was a bit cheaper in the ’90s – “they were still making land back then,” Kenna joked – and a 140-acre parcel along the Florida River at the base of Bondad Hill became available in 1998. The fund drives began. Grants and donations came in. “Ann was pretty convincing,” Kenna said.
It took nearly two years and a landowner’s conservation easement, which lowered the price on 35 of the acres, but finally Durango Nature Studies had its home.
Rilling stayed as executive director for seven years. Cheryl Wiescamp, Lisa Branner and Allison Pease followed. Shuffield took the position in 2007.
Rilling and Kenna are no longer directly involved. Kenna, interestingly, in 2004, bought For the Birds, that shop Rilling had suggested they start; she ran it for several years next to Rotary Park.
These days, more than 4,000 students from 30-plus schools annually go through DNS classes, Shuffield said. In all, about 8,000 people enjoy the nonprofit’s programs each year.
Parents who rue the fact their kids spend more time looking at computers and TVs, and less time out in a field or on a trail than ever before, can take some solace in the existence of DNS.
“As the world shrinks and gets more rapid-paced,” Carver said, “it’s even more important to connect with basic, human origins and roots.”
Fortunately for Southwest Coloradans the wild outdoors – and Durango Nature Studies – are not far away.
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.