CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. – The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center. Sara Turner, the manager of the center said the celebration will get started with a free outdoor concert by Wildheart Friday, May 1, from 7 to 8 p.m. Celebrations will continue Saturday, May 2, with an event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., where the community can sample outdoor skills and activities such as archery, canoeing, nature art, native plant gardening and wildlife identification.
"We wanted to keep our focus on the community and the whole reason we're here," Turner said. "So we're making our anniversary celebration all about helping our community find more ways to discover nature as they enjoy the concert Friday night and then sample new outdoor activities together Saturday."
Turner said 470,080 people have visited the center in the 10 years it's been open. Naturalists and volunteers have led 4,925 nature programs, teaching community members all types of outdoor skills such as archery, Dutch oven cooking, fishing, canoeing and other skills.
"With an employed staff of only nine, we depend heavily on our volunteer force, which brings an enthusiasm and love of nature to everything they do here," Turner said.
There are currently 28 individuals who volunteer their time at the center. Nature Center volunteers contribute to the operation of the center in many ways, including maintaining the native landscaping that surrounds the center, teaching nature programs, making props and costumes for nature programs and assisting with general office tasks. Turner said the volunteer force has contributed 79,729 hours of service, which translates into a savings to the center of more than $1.5 million.
"It would take about 38 full time employees to generate the contribution that our volunteers make to the Nature Center," Turner said. "They are an invaluable part of the center and our entire community."
Turner said it's been rewarding to watch the Nature Center become part of the southeast Missouri community and culture. Over the last 10 years, staff and volunteers have made a point to take part in many community events, leading trash pick-ups, serving as an area Stream Team, becoming active members of the Jackson and Cape Girardeau Chambers of Commerce, providing information and exhibits at area events such as the SEMO District Fair, and serving as a resource for schools across the Bootheel and into the Ozarks.
"It's our mission to help people discover nature and to help our community realize how conservation improves quality of life for all of us," Turner said. "These community events are an important way for us to lead others in discovering the benefits that come with being active in the outdoors."
Some of the large, more popular events hosted by the Cape Nature Center include the annual Native Plant Seminar in March, Day on the River in September and the Fall Festival in October.
"We've been encouraged to see attendance grow into the thousands at our bigger annual events," Turner said. "That tells us we're doing something right and to keep finding ways to introduce people to nature."
Turner said the staff and volunteers at the center continually look for new ways to benefit and work with local schools, scout groups, people with special needs, minorities, university students and homeschool groups – many of whom have established relationships with the nature center. One of the reasons for the center's popularity is that it's one of very few options for those looking for something fun to do that's easy on the wallet.
"We're one of the only free opportunities for families and groups in the region thanks to the 1/8 of 1% Conservation Sales Tax," Turner said, adding this is one reason schools and groups use the center so frequently.
"Our kid's fishing pond and hiking trails are also a big hit," Turner said.
For Turner, the best thing about the nature center is that it gives her opportunities to share enthusiasm and knowledge of nature with others.
"Educating others about our local resources and how they can share their knowledge and skills is fulfilling because the rewards include a growing awareness of the value of nature, which translates down the road into increased stewardship of our natural world as more people head outdoors and begin to work to conserve and protect it," she said.
The future of the Cape Nature Center is wide-open with possibilities, Turner said, including continued growth of partnerships within the community and with local school districts.
"I want us to be the first place someone thinks about when they think about nature, outdoor skills and conservation in our region," she said.
In addition to cleaning and monitoring Cape Lacroix Creek as a Stream Team, Turner said the staff and volunteers at the center hope to adopt a section of the highway in front of the nature center to work toward eliminating some of the litter.
The Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center is located inside Cape Girardeau's North County Park, just east of Interstate 55 (Exit 99) and Kingshighway (State Highway 61). More information about the center can be found online at mdc.mo.gov/CapeNatureCenter.