Building nature’s classroom
The Bidwell Park Nature Center makes tracks toward its much-needed expansion
Bidwell Park is to Chico what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona, the Rocky Mountains to Colorado, Yellowstone to Wyoming and Mt. Rushmore to South Dakota.
Not only does it help establish the town’s rightful place on the map, it is also immeasurably popular with the locals, who, no matter their political leanings, are united in their fierce loyalty to the 3,670-acre municipal park, the ninth largest in the nation.
But its popularity may also be its greatest threat. It gets more use than may be healthy for it, and its facilities don’t meet the demand, as evidenced by its visitor and information center.
The center is located in an increasingly cramped structure located off East Eighth Street. For serving one of the largest parks in the nation, the center, built in 1991, is surprisingly small and barely able to accommodate the steadily increasing number of visitors it sees each year. On top of that, the center has for years offered a variety of nature programs for kids.
A solution is on the way.
This year the park is celebrating its centennial, and coincidently the folks who run the park’s visitor center—a.k.a the Chico Creek Nature Center—are well into a fund-raising effort to help pay for the $420,000 project to add a new structure for more classroom space and an expansion of its environmental-education programs.
As of March the Building Nature’s Classroom effort had collected $270,000, including $200,000 from the city via the state’s bond act known as the Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks and Coastal Protection Act.
Other contributors include Mark and Candy Priano, whose daughter Kristie, a very popular Nature Center junior volunteer and animal-care assistant, was killed in a traffic accident a few years ago. Her parents’ generous contribution has established the environmental classroom that will be named in her memory.
And just last month a second fund-raising effort via a Saturday of programs, walks and nature lectures netted at least $6,000, with more pledged and rolling in.
The goal is to raise at least $450,000 to cover other expenses such as exhibits and other center necessities.
The Chico Creek Nature Center is an independent nonprofit organization that was created by the Altacal Audubon Society in 1982. Under its auspices, the center has developed into an attraction unique to Chico that serves both the community and visitors.
Nine years ago the center broke away from the Audubon Society and formed a separate entity that today operates as a natural-history museum as well as a nature, information and visitors’ center.
Besides the educational programs it offers K-6 students, it also hosts birthday parties, hikes and nature activities for the public, including interactive wildlife exhibits, winter, spring and summer day camps for kids and a living-animal museum, the star of which is Gruck, a talking (and rescued) crow who’s unofficially served as the center’s mascot since it opened.
Other services include university internships and a diverse volunteer program.
Tom Haithcock is executive director of the Chico Creek Nature Center. “With the community’s growing population, the park is impacted more and more each year,” he said. “And the groups that are interested in encouraging responsible use of the park need a facility to reach their audiences. Groups like the Friends of Bidwell Park, the Native Plant Society and the Nature Center.”
Two years after establishing itself as a self-reliant nonprofit, the nature center lost its administrative offices to fire. Since then it has made plans not only to replace that loss, but also to build a more-modern interpretive center as well, Haithcock explained.
“We think a park of this magnitude deserves more than just the center that we have out there now,” he said. “We’re very happy with the response that we get for the existing facilities—the programs we offer out there are very popular—but there is a capacity problem.
“It was always meant to be a multi-functional building, but in an effort to grow with the area and expand programs in order to survive we have to conduct programs in the middle of the museum floor while it is open to the public.”
Like so many locals, the affable and truly sincere Haithcock—this writer’s known him many years—came to Chico to go to college. Born in Evanston, Illinois, and raised in the East Bay city of Alamo, Haithcock received his bachelor’s degree from Chico State University’s Instructional Technology Department in the early ‘80s, returned to town in 1989 to teach and has stayed.
About a dozen years ago he made the transition to the public nonprofit sector, and after working for a number of organizations was named the nature center’s director in 2002.
The new building will be located about 200 feet directly behind the present center and will eventually be connected by a canopy tying the structures together.
As would be expected from such an operation, there will be a minimum amount of environmental impact to the area where the construction is to take place.
Haithcock notes that with greater square-footage come additional costs.
“Certainly there are increased operational costs that come with an additional facility on the grounds, and we hope to cover those by employing a dossier program to run portions of the facility,” he said.
“And with the additional space we’ll be able to expand the retail shop and bring in additional revenue that way. Additional floor space and classroom allow us the opportunity to run some programs concurrently, whereas now we can only run one at a time.”
The new structure will also allow the center to offer rental space to organizations in town with similar missions.
“We hope to break ground in this centennial year,” he said. “We think despite the public appreciation for the nature center, there are still a lot of people who don’t know we are here.”
He thinks building a new structure may well attract the additional attention—both in interest and funding—the project needs for completion.
“We feel that there are people from our area, and many more that are arriving here, who may not appreciate or understand the complexity, diversity and magnificence of our amazing park,” he explained.
“With the new exhibit and classroom facility, we hope to entice visitors to the center to go out and witness that magnificence, which we also hope will increase their appreciation and respect for the park. We think that the new facility will encourage responsible use of the park. By doing these things we believe that the new facility will help us preserve the park for the future.”