In 1972, soil excavated from the construction of an Olympic-size swimming pool at Newport Harbor High School was dumped near a gully that ran behind the adjacent Newport-Mesa Unified School District administrative offices, on land deemed otherwise useless. But that is not how a group of dedicated and determined science teachers and student volunteers saw it. They formed this soil into a landscape on which they created a living nature laboratory. From that beginning, students from throughout the community were invited to share its treasures, help maintain it, nurture it and learn from its resources.
The Long Version
In the Beginning, by Robert House
In 1972, during my seventeenth year teaching Biology at Newport Harbor High School, the gully between the high school and private property on Kings Drive was a dumping area for the bus garage and a jungle of non-descript vegetation spilling over sloping back yards. The area from Sixteenth Street behind the athletic fields was just a vacant weed patch, as this part was left over from the days of the Union High School District Agriculture Program. Still evident were stakes where students picketed their cows, horses and sheep.
Biology teachers at the high school always yearned for natural areas to take their students to learn nature from “the real world.” Previous to 1972 students still had many open spaces such as the Back Bay and open fields to explore, mentioned as a passing optimistic thought that the gully and unused land could be improved to become an educational facility for all ages to enjoy and from which to learn.
Fortunately, these ideas began to germinate when two ladies from the Junior Ebell Club (Nancy Leland and Karen Kovach) met with Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Norman Loats to ask what they could do to support environmental education in our community. It wasn’t long before the Junior League became involved. A community support group was founded and a non-profit organization with a board of directors began meeting. Just like the “genie in a bottle”, educators found enthusiasm they thought they had lost. Potential names for our area were proposed, and the Junior Ebell group decided it should be named The Environmental Nature Center or “ENC.”
Community and homeowner organizations including the Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary Clubs were approached to lend their support. With seed funding from Newport Harbor High School and the support of principal Charles Godshall and Dr. Loats the ENC was ready for take-off.
Jill Durkee, parent and Junior League member, became the first president of the Board of Directors. She and I met with landscape architect Fred Lang, who had an appreciation for native vegetation. He along with Ann Christoph developed our landscape plan and design.
It was always the intention to plant native trees, shrubs, and flowers which had adapted over many years to drought tolerances and to this botanic province. This type of vegetation would require less care and introduce people to the uses and benefits of native plants, as well as show students the flora they would observe in natural California. We envisioned a completely natural area where students could experience the sounds of birds, the smell of flowers and the textures of nature.
Along with fellow teacher John Echternach, who had a real appreciation for the natural world, we decided to depict twelve of California’s twenty-sight plant communities so we could demonstrate to future visitors the benefits of natives. Therefore, we were able to have desert, chaparral, different forest and streamside habitats. John Echternach continued for many years to support and give his time and expertise to the development of the Nature Center.
Landscapers quoted us prices that were beyond our budget. In order to get started with the development, we created classes at the high school that would do the work to establish trails, plant trees, rototill, weed, build log fences, etc. The first year we had four classes of about twenty-five students that met in the ENC to perform various tasks. I directed two classes and three other teachers became involved as well. One of the first tasks was to build the 300 foot recycling stream with two ponds. We were able to obtain mass quantities of soil when the high school was excavating for the new Olympic pool. The pool soil was dumped into a huge pile that would form a buffer shield from the athletic fields as also demonstrate the effect of north and south face exposure adaptations of plants. One hill would provide a natural setting for an amphitheater overlooking the waterfall.
In 1974 I was granted a sabbatical leave to investigate nature centers in the eastern U.S. with the National Audubon Society. While gathering educational programs developed for elementary students I met naturalist Betty Hogg in New York and encouraged her to become our first volunteer to help develop and lead educational tours of the ENC.
We realized that we could not afford to develop this center all at once, so we did it gradually as funding allowed. Huge old Eucalyptus trees used to border the gully. It was always desired to gradually remove these non-native trees as their resins produce unfavorable toxins for an understory of natives. Our patience with this project came through and the gully has been planted with sycamores, oaks and island flora. It became a rewarding chore for many people to see this two and one half acre area develop, grow and change into what it has become…one of the most unique examples of native California flora within Southern California. With vegetation came insects, spiders, lizards, snakes, amphibians, birds and mammals. It has been the birds, though, that have been attracted the most. The local Audubon Chapter has long used this area to identify different bird species, and their records list over 130. The largest mammal to take up temporary residence was a coyote.
As the ENC matured so did the many educational programs. The first task was to build up a skilled volunteer docent group who could be called upon to direct teachers and their students to learn from this natural, yet man made nature center. Not only did we develop different outdoor educational programs for the elementary grades, be we continually used the area for high school students as well. Many former students who helped plant and create this center come back to share this positive experience with their children.
The trees have grown, the plant communities have matured, yet it isn’t finished. Nature continually changes and with changes come new life and more planting, pruning and general upkeep if man is to continue to walk with nature in this place.
There have been many people involved in the early development of the ENC and all have given of themselves to help in it’s growth. Their time, effort and dedication have been unparalleled. A few who come to mind besides those already mentioned are Carol Anslow, Kay Brown, Mary Ellen Brownell, Bill Burge, Susan Busch, Peggy Clark, Susan Clark, Debra Clarke, Cinda Johnson, Bob Kelly, Joan Kitchens, Curt and Michael Owens, Arline Parker, Joan and Al Pizzo, Rae Price, Bruce Trotter and Richard Yarnal.
The ENC is a place where all ages can walk, pause to smell the scents, observe birds, watch the seasons change and discover nature first hand. As we consider the future of the ENC and look back at it’s recent history we must not neglect the necessary maintenance of the native plant life. Priority should always be given to the esthetics and the original philosophy of a natural plant community with well maintained trails. More important, the development of curriculum must continue in order to provide the highest quality environmental education. The Nature Center is outdoors but a classroom none the less. The benefits of this facility are evident in the faces of all who enter.