Not just for bird lovers:
Audubon Ohio's new nature center
By Karen Edwards
Imagine a park within walking distance of the Short North that includes 15 acres of woods, 8 to 10 acres of meadows, and 12 acres of wetlands. Peregrine falcons spin in the sky above, and an occasional bald eagle soars by.
How often would you visit such a park? Every weekend? Every day? If you're like most urban dwellers starved for green space, you'll visit as often as you can.
Audubon Ohio understands that - probably better than any environmental group - and that's why the society is working with the city of Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks to develop the Whittier Peninsula Park, within an easy walk of the Short North neighborhood.
It's here, on a fist of land jutting into the Scioto River off Whittier Street, and not far from the police impound lot, that Audubon Ohio will build its first urban nature education center, the Columbus Audubon Nature Center. It's expected to open in 2008.
"We did a gap analysis recently to learn where the need exists for environmental education, and we found a real need exists in Ohio's central cities," says Audubon Ohio Executive Director Jerry Tinianow
Nature and the neighborhood
With the National Audubon Society's recent re-focus on a "nature and neighborhood connection," the Whittier peninsula seems like a perfect fit for the Ohio program. After all, the new nature center won't be far at all from Audubon Ohio's Short North offices at 692 North High Street, just a floor above Rigsby's Cuisine Volatile.
"When we learned about the city's plans to develop the Whittier area, we knew we wanted to be a partner," says Tinianow. "We had done the analysis, and we knew the center would fill a need."
Audubon Ohio invited Mayor Michael Coleman and City Council President Matt Habash to join him on a trip to the Audubon Nature Center and Farm near Dayton. The group wanted them to see possibilities. Both city leaders saw probabilities. Audubon Ohio was quickly added as a third partner to the development project.
And why not? The Whittier peninsula offers a perfect haven for nature lovers. The peninsula, as well as the area around Greenlawn Dam is one of the few areas of Columbus that has remained virtually untouched for decades, so it's become a natural haven for wildlife of all kind, including more than 200 species of birds.
"The peninsula is one of our designated Important Bird Areas," says Tiniaow.
Audubon Ohio recognizes 56 such areas in the state - all of which are critical to the conservation of migratory species. Audubon Ohio not only designates these areas, but also identifies the criteria for establishing them.
Yet as important as bird and animal conservation is for Audubon Ohio - it's one of the society's five major focuses - education is also a huge part of Audubon Ohio's mission.
"Every environment is unique," says Tinianow, which explains why the national Society's recent re-orientation from a national focus to a more local one. Other conservation groups may help you learn about nature and wildlife hundreds of miles away from your doorstep. Audubon wants you to focus your attention on your own back yard.
And the new Columbus Audubon nature center will help you do just that.
Nature up close
"The primary audience for the center will be children," says Tinianow, and, more specifically, urban school groups who may not have had the same opportunities as suburban children to go out into woods, fields and streams and get their hands dirty.
The center that's being designed for the Whittier peninsula is similar in some respects to the building at Aulwood. It will be "green," that is, ecologically friendly. It will use recycled material and will probably have a passive design. It will have plenty of windows. The windows help acclimate visitors to the outdoors while still maintaining a level of indoor comfort, Tinianow explains. The next step, then, is to lure the visitor outside to the center's deck, then onto the trails for a nature excursion.
Children, of course, rarely need this type of orchestrated exposure. One look out the windows, and they're already itching to go outside and explore.
It's a natural way to learn, says Tinianow, who adds that environmental education helps children improve their ability across all academic subject areas.
"It gives the kids something to do with their knowledge," says Tinianow. "They're participating in the process, not just sitting in a chair while facts are recited."
And it's empowering for a child to know that his or her field work is being used by actual scientists who count on citizen observations like theirs, to conduct their studies and draw their conclusions. It helps a child realize the impact they can have on nature now and in the future.
Of course, adults aren't left out from this learning process.
Audubon Ohio has just completed a series of spring walks to give adult bird lovers, including a number of community leaders, an opportunity to visit the area and familiarize themselves with prime birding spots.
Audubon at Home
And Audubon Ohio also offers an Audubon At Home program - a third focus, behind conservation and education.
What this program does, says Tinianow, is to train people how to improve the habitat for birds right in their own backyards -- even to the point of knowing what kind of seed to put in bird feeders at what time of year.
The first public presentation for "Audubon At Home" was given in February, and the society hopes to train enough "community consultants" to speak at chapter meetings, present programs, and set up displays at neighborhood shopping centers and malls. The consultants will serve as a link between Audubon Ohio and backyard bird watchers - a rapidly growing hobby, especially among urban dwellers who don't have ready access to forests, meadows and other bird habitats.
The final two focuses of Audubon Ohio fall in the area of chapter relations and public policy.
"We stay in close contact with our local chapters," says Tinianow - but even then, the chapters are offered plenty of independence. Each of the 19 local chapters is separately incorporated. Members may opt to join the national organization, but it's not a requirement of membership - and each chapter is free to issue its own policy statements, even if those positions run counter to those presented by the state and/or national organizations.
"It goes back to the nature and neighborhood concept," says Tinianow. "Local people know better than anyone what works best in their backyard."
There is no question, however, but that the proposed nature center would work well in anyone's backyard.
Tinianow sees the Columbus center as perhaps a prototype for other urban centers throughout the state.
"We'll look for opportunities to provide this kind of center elsewhere," he says, but adds that Audubon Ohio is more interested in quality and not in the quantity of sites it creates.
Such centers, after all, do not come cheaply, and while the national Audubon Society is more than happy to help its state organization with plans and designs, financial help is not offered. Each state office is expected to be self-sufficient.
So money for the Columbus Audubon Nature Center is being raised through the support of corporations, government, foundation grants, and individuals, including many of Audubon Ohio's 19,000 members.
"We received a $130,000 grant from the Solid Waste Authority, and a $75,000 grant from AEP," says Tianianow. And the Columbus Foundation recently gave Audubon Ohio a $40,000 grant for conservation work on Whittier - the largest grant that organization has given Audubon Ohio to date.
In other words, there is already a great deal of community support for what Audubon Ohio is doing. Urban dwellers, more than anyone, understand the importance of preserving green space.
Imagine, then, a green space, surrounded on three sides by an energetic river. Imagine looking out of a window at fields and meadows and towering trees. Step onto the deck and smell pine and flowers and sweet earth scents. Then wander through trails where butterflies dance and ospreys swoop, and falcons and hawks and even bald eagles soar overhead.
This will be the Whittier Peninsula Park, and the Columbus Audubon Nature Center.
And to think -- for those who live and work and visit the Short North - all of it will be right in their own backyard.
To learn more about or contribute to the Columbus Audubon Nature Center, contact Audubon Ohio, 692 N. High St., Suite 208, Columbus, OH. 43215-1585, (614) 224-3303, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Not just for bird lovers sidebar
With the promise of a new nature park opening in the Short North's backyard, now is the perfect time to cultivate a new appreciation of Ohio wildlife, especially its varied and colorful bird population. But what if you've never been able to tell a sparrow from a finch, or a pigeon from a dove? Well, help is out there. Here are a few resources to get you started:
Audubon Web site
The Audubon Web site is a good place to start your education. It contains national news and information about the environment, with an emphasis on birds, of course. Link to the Audubon Ohio site and local chapters from here.
692 North High Street, Suite 208
Columbus, Ohio 43214-1585
The state chapter of the National Audubon Society has a bi-weekly e-mail newsletter it can send you with the latest news about Ohio conservation issues and programs. In addition, their office keeps a supply of printed material about birding on hand, and you are welcome to stop by their office to pick up copies.
Columbus Audubon Society
P.O. Box 141350, Columbus, OH 43214
Phone: (614) 451-4591
The Columbus chapterWeb site includes information on field trips, work trips, and all the educational classes you'll need to get started. Birding 101 classes have proven so popular, in fact, that the Columbus group offered "Astronomy 101" classes in April, and will offer "Butterflies 101" in May. Visit the Web site for the latest information on classes and trips.