TENAS nature center aims for Earth Day debut

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By Stephen Knapp

More than a dozen years of planning, fund-raising and negotiating paid off last week as The Evergreen Naturalists Audubon Society officially got comfy in the Old Warming Hut at Evergreen Lake.

“We’re just so pleased to get going on the nature center,” says TENAS vice president Peggy Durham. “It’s been a dream of ours for a long time.”

On Tuesday, April 1, the group’s five-year lease on the historic pile kicked in, and TENAS has given itself until April 19 to transform the building’s empty western half into a first-class eco-attraction. Why the rush?

“Our grand opening isn’t until May 10, but we’re going to be up and running on Earth Day,” explains longtime TENAS campaigner Walt Phillips. “We’re inviting everyone to come in and see what we’ve got.”

According to Phillips, they’ve got a lot. Besides dozens of eager volunteers and more than $50,000 in its piggybank, TENAS has spent the last year forging partnerships and lining up exhibits.

“We’ve been procuring display items from all over the place, and we’ve got a lot of help from the Jeffco Open Space nature center on Lookout Mountain,” he says. “We’re also getting exhibits on loan from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and we’ll be rotating different projects from them and other nature centers in the area.”

While that’s all very encouraging, TENAS still faces some interesting challenges. For starters, Colorado Historical Society regulations prohibit nailing, tacking, bolting or otherwise permanently affixing anything to the 68-year-old landmark’s walls, floor or ceiling, meaning that everything must be mounted on portable stands, shelves and panels.

Next, TENAS’ agreement with the Evergreen Park and Recreation District gives the nature center two years to polish its act before a formal evaluation determines whether the project is meeting its educational and public attendance goals.

“The board is very supportive of this, and we’re all very excited that we’ve finally reached this point,” says EPRD’s executive director, John Skeel. “There are still a few details to work out, but the district will support them any way we can.”

Finally, somebody will have to take on the daunting tasks of recruiting and coordinating enough volunteers to keep the center staffed five days a week from April to December, directing the comings and goings of itinerant exhibits and scheduling a host of planned classes and workshops. Happily, that somebody will be Michael Stills, the naturalists’ first and only paid employee.

“We advertised for an executive director, and we got Stills,” Phillips says. “Out of seven applicants, he was definitely the most qualified.”

And how. A certified volunteer administrator currently working toward a master’s degree in nonprofit management, Stills’ resume reads like an unabridged history of cat herding. Besides successful stints coordinating volunteers for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the Mile High chapter of the American Red Cross, Stills built Jefferson County Open Space’s volunteer program from the ground up.

“Working with volunteers is about motivating people from their heart, not from a paycheck,” explains Stills, who lives in central Evergreen with his wife, Tracey, and their 10-year-old daughter, Megan. “Certainly my background supports my job here, which is to make sure the center gets up and running and we accomplish all of our goals and objectives. The first thing is to get everyone’s ideas together and turn them into an actionable plan. And I don’t want to focus strictly on TENAS. I think this can be a really nice community focal point.”

Among his other notable attainments, Stills has been engaged as a youth work program supervisor for the Wilderness Institute in Malibu, Calif., and as a park ranger at Mesa Verde National Park specializing in visitor protection and resource management. Even so, he considers heading up the Evergreen Lake Nature Center his best gig yet.

“Who doesn’t want to live and work in Evergreen?” he asks, smiling the smile of the genuinely tickled. “This is as close to an ideal job as I could have.”

To learn more about The Evergreen Naturalists Audubon Society, visit www.dipper.org. Anyone interested in being an Evergreen Nature Center volunteer should e-mail enc@dipper.org.