By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
GALENA, Kan. —
Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Secretary Robin Jennison was cautiously optimistic Wednesday afternoon that the agency will be able to take steps to ensure the future of the Southeast Kansas Nature Center in Schermerhorn Park.
“I’m confident we’ll be able to do something,” he told an informal gathering of the center’s supporters, the center’s founder, and local and state elected officials.
The agency’s primary focus has become recruitment and retention in outdoor pursuits such as fishing, hunting and wildlife conservation.
“When it comes to educating and introducing people to the outdoors, places like this are key to that,” Jennison said.
No state nature centers exist in Southeast Kansas. Biologists have cited the area as having unique topography and ecosystems, and being home to as many as 30 percent of the state’s threatened and endangered species.
Linda Phipps, who as a local teacher spearheaded the drive to create the center 10 years ago and continues in retirement to serve as its volunteer director, first proposed that KDWPT assume operations in 2010. Although looked upon favorably by then-Secretary Mike Hayden, budget shortfalls and a reduction in the agency’s staff made it unfeasible.
She again brought the proposal before Jennison and other KDWPT officials Wednesday.
“A lot of the key people who helped start this are older or are ill or have moved away,” Phipps said during her presentation. “We want to ensure the perpetual existence of the nature center. We feel this would be a perfect match.”
This time around, it also was met favorably by those in attendance.
“Kansas only has one little piece of the Ozarks, and it’s here,” said Jim Triplett, a longtime professor of biology at Pittsburg State University who often brings students to the park for research. “It’s a tremendous asset, very fragile and susceptible to intrusion. This is an area that needs to be preserved and protected in perpetuity.”
The center began as and remains a project brought about at the grass-roots level. Donations paid for the complete renovation of what had been a crumbling scout cabin, and volunteers contributed nature-related collections and artifacts. Donations and grants continue to sustain it.
Galena Mayor Dale Oglesby said he well remembered a time when the cabin was caving in and area residents came to the park maybe 10 or 12 weeks out of every year, mostly to wade in Shoal Creek. He said he sees it as having tremendous potential to draw out-of-state visitors to spend time and money, an idea discussed at length by state and local officials Wednesday.
“Thanks to the nature center, this has become a 365-day-a-year park, not just 12 weeks,” Oglesby said. “It’s almost too good to be true.”
Jake LaTurner, a Galena native recently elected as the 13th District state senator, told the group he believed the nature center has played a role in Galena’s recent development.
“We have to be rooted in reality when it comes to budget shortfalls,” LaTurner said. “We must prioritize, and this is certainly a priority.”
Officials made no decision Wednesday.
Two part-time staff members at the Southeast Kansas Nature Center are funded through a federal senior citizen work program. A sizable group of volunteers conducts programs at the park for schools in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, after-school programs for about 90 Galena students a week, summer camps, adult programs and special presentations throughout the year. Were the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to assume operations, a full-time staff person would be necessary.