The past 18 months have been filled with hopes, dreams and challenges, heavily impacted by the historic viral pandemic. It became evident during this time, perhaps more than ever before, that people regard parks and natural areas as essential to their lives. People have shown a new appreciation for nature and the outdoors, which gives us hope for the future of natural resources and outdoor recreation, as well as new avenues to connect with individuals, families and groups to continue to expand this involvement through educational opportunities that can build on this appreciation and involvement.
As naturalists for Buchanan CCB, we worked to develop (and copy) innovative environmental education and nature appreciation events that kept recommended social distancing and sizes small at a time when public gatherings had the potential to spread the virus.
Some of the programs that addressed this issue included our Baby Bison Bingo (a self-guided challenge to visit some of our 41 BCCB properties when gatherings were limited to family groups), animal encounters via Facebook Live, Forest Bathing and Build-it -at -Home kits for birdhouses. This limited programming period also allowed for the development of several new educational exhibits at the nature center, including a bird egg/nest exhibit and a spring wild turkey exhibit.
As restrictions were lifted, the nature center reopened and programming — mostly outdoors — began to resume in person. However, ongoing school restrictions meant fewer school programs, so we continued to focus on small outdoor educational events for adults and families. Weekly winter and spring walks as well as OWLS events continued to bring participants to outlying BCCB properties, Easter egg geocaching was implemented to allow families to participate and maintain distance , and the school programming that took place was carried out in the natural outdoor spaces of the school in the area. . Last spring, as the number of vaccines increased, indoor school programming resumed and summer camp programs filled up.
During this period, the Conservation Board, Director and staff have been working on planning for the future with respect to the recent acquisition of additional adjoining property in Fontana (our head office park). Plans included expanding education and outdoor recreation opportunities. The Board of Trustees spent over a year working through a strategic process to create a master plan to guide future projects at Fontana Park. Implementation of the first phase began quickly this spring with the establishment of prairie and pasture plantings for a new bison and prairie learning center. Fences, paths, educational kiosks and a new access road are part of the first phase. Booth content design began with brainstorming and developing educational messages.
Although the number of educational programs in our exercise (7-1-20 to 6-30-21) has dropped significantly from its historic highs of over 20,000 participants several years ago, we have still been in able to offer 641 unique programs with a total attendance of 10,497 people. This included 444 programs for students in area schools
throughout the year (from preschool to middle school), with 7,796 students attending. Attendance was largely based on each school’s policies during the pandemic. Sixty-three presentations were made to youth groups, including Boy Scouts, 4-H, library and church groups, as well as youth enrolled in Conservation Board camps, with the participation of 732 attendees. There were 121 programs offered during the year for families and adult participation. Of those, 31 were requested by civic groups, senior centers and nursing homes once indoor restrictions were lifted, and 90 were programs advertised and shown to the general public.
Summer camp programs in 2021 were largely back to pre-pandemic levels. Youngsters progress from Preschool Wee Nature Storytellers (ages 3-5), to Nature Explorers (ages 6-8), and Young Naturalists (ages 9-12). The annual River Raiders (11-13 year olds) overnight canoe trip took place (although cut short by severe thunderstorms). In partnership with Benton County, a trip for young people (ages 14-18) to the wilderness of Boundary Waters took place in August. — a trip that had to be canceled for 2020.
In addition to in-person programs, educational efforts include publications, self-guided trails, exhibits, websites,
and other media. Interpretive signs exist on the self-guided trails in the woods of Jakway Forest and Fontana Park. An outdoor gazebo display has changed with the seasons at Fontana Park. Kiosks and signs also exist on the themes of a Pioneer Farm (Jakway), Sustainable Cabins (Fontana), Swamp (Rowley Fen and Fairbank Fen), Wapsipinicon River Corridor (Grover Timber), and Water Trail of the Wapsipinicon River (Quasqueton and Independence). Other interpretive resources included four issues of the Otter Creek Quarterly, websites (buchanancountyparks.com, mycountyparks.com, Iowa tourism and www.tripadvisor.com), a Facebook page and a conservation mailing list. Facebook Live and QR codes were used to provide additional reach for certain programs.
Since its inception, the Fontana Interpretive Nature Center has attracted visitors from all 50 states and more than 80 foreign countries. The nature center and wildlife exhibit continue to be very popular. The number of visitors to the nature center was approximately 9,600 for fiscal year 20-21.
As you can see, environmental education is an important strategy used by BCCB to provide information and experiences that empower people to make more informed personal choices regarding conservation practices, natural resource protection, and environmental health. , and gain an appreciation of the natural world.