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County's nature centers still seem to have few champions in high places

One County Board member does want to get ball rolling on renovations

Coming as it did the day before St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps it was fitting that at least a small fraction of an Arlington budget session focused on the red-headed stepchildren of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Advocates for the county government’s two nature centers, and one County Board member, pressed their case to upgrade the facilities and bring staff levels and hours of operation to pre-COVID levels.

The county government has been “woefully neglecting” Long Branch and Gulf Branch nature centers, said Phil Klingelhofer, chair of the Forestry and Natural Resources Commission, in testimony during the March 16 budget work session between County Board members and the parks department.

Exhibits are outdated and the scheduling, which has fallen from six days per week before 2020 to just three now, doesn’t give the public much confidence.

“Visits, especially drop-in visits, are way down, because people are confused about when the nature centers are open,” Klingelhofer said.

Colt Gregory, representing the Park and Recreation Commission, called the two facilities “gateways to understanding and appreciation” of nature, especially among young people.

“Let’s try to give them full funding,” he requested.

But providing additional staffing support doesn’t seem to be in the cards over the short term, and a proposal from Friends of Gulf Branch to have the county government spend $750,000 at each facility for a modest facelift also seems to have no champions in the parks department.

Libby Garvey, the only County Board member to address the topic at the budget workshop, voiced concern about the lack of urgency.

“It feels like we just keep having the same concerns and worries, and the centers get older,” she said. “It just seems like we’re not making progress.”

Last year, parks director Jane Rudolph said she wanted to wait until completion of an update to a master plan for natural resources before addressing the topic (an idea critics derided as backward). At the recent budget hearing, Rudolph noted that while there is funding in the county government’s current capital-improvement program for a study of the nature-center facilities, they are “far out” – about nine years into the 10-year plan.

“We need to do something sooner,” Garvey shot back.

Gregory, Klingelhofer and other nature-center supporters appear bewildered by the seeming lack of interest of staff and most on the County Board in tackling the matter.

Making nature centers vibrant places that attract big crowds “should be viewed as an investment in the future rather than just a current cost,” Klingelhofer said.

“It will pay off many times over,” he said.