Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center Celebrates 25 Years
By Dawn Snyder, Education Programs Director, Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center
The Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center (DPNC) will turn 25 on October 22, 2020. The popular, local attraction and educational facility is managed by the Woodbury County Conservation Board (WCCB) and boasts more than 55,000 visitors annually. Surrounded by over 1,000 acres of woodlands and loess hills prairies, the DPNC is the perfect setting for outdoor learning. Hands-on exhibits engage visitors in learning about the plants and animals of the Loess Hills and three miles of trails give them a chance to explore our natural habitats. People from all over the country (and world!) visit this nature center to learn, appreciate and revel in our natural environment. Much has happened to contribute to this success over the past quarter of a century.
Just as it took a village to plan, create and fulfill this dream, countless people have worked over the years to make this facility one of the most respected nature centers in the state.
Some of those early nature center roots have been long-lived. For example, many volunteers that assisted with education programs and planning were part of the grassroots beginning before the nature center was conceived and are still active as nature center volunteers today. One such example is Dianne Blankenship. Blankenship has a passion for native prairie restoration and has worked tirelessly for decades to promote awareness and appreciation of the Loess Hills. To trace her history with WCCB and the nature center, you need to go back to the 1980s. She served on the interview selection committee in 1988 that hired me, Dawn Snyder, the first naturalist for WCCB. In 1989, I proposed the idea of a nature center to WCCB and recruited dozens of people to assist in that cause.
Blankenship was one of the founding members of the Woodbury County Conservation Foundation (WCCF). WCCF was established in 1990 as the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization for WCCB, an essential function to assist with fundraising for the future nature center. She served with other key community leaders on the nature center capital campaign cabinet to help secure funds for the $1.35 million facility. She continues today as an important volunteer and mentor and is still serving on the WCCF Board of Directors and trumpets the cause for native plants and prairies.
Another capital campaign cabinet member was Dr. Gerald McGowan. The McGowan family has rich history with DPNC. McGowan’s daughter, Eileen (McGowan) Lord, played a crucial role in planning and developing the nature center’s hands-on exhibits. As a member of the Junior League of Sioux City (JLSC), Lord served as chair of the Junior League Legacy Exhibit Gallery committee. Junior League’s generous pledge of $50,000 launched the design, construction and funding of the exhibits. More than 20 women of the JLSC volunteered and dedicated their time and talent to make the nature center’s exhibits such a success. Even Chamber President Chris McGowan joined in an exhibit work day prior to the nature center grand opening in 1995. Another daughter Laura (McGowan) Glover volunteered for several years on the Nature Calls fundraiser committee, raising funds for the nature center in the successful and unique beer tasting charity event. Over the years, Nature Calls events have helped fund the nature center exhibit upgrade in 2011, the Raptor House and the Discovery Forest Nature Playscape.
It’s rewarding and special to share the lives of multi-generations that have been touched by DPNC. We celebrate and embrace the wonder of teaching youngsters every day. For instance, in a typical summer the extremely popular & successful Summer Day Camps at DPNC reach more than 300 youth each year. Over the years we have watched youngsters attend camp as four-year-olds, returning each year until they are 14 or 15. Several past campers have then become Junior Volunteers, and volunteer at Summer Day Camps. Then in turn, some former campers-turned-volunteers become Summer Naturalist interns and become paid seasonal staff.
Then there have been more than a handful of past campers/volunteers/interns that have gone on to pursue a career in natural resources or in the teaching profession. Tess Lord (daughter of Eileen McGowan Lord and granddaughter of Gerald McGowan) is one of those examples. Tess spent the past summer as a Summer Naturalist Intern at DPNC. She’s currently majoring in Environmental Science at Briar Cliff University and is exploring Naturalist as a career choice. And, of course, we have former Summer Day campers that now enroll their children in our Summer Day Camps and youth programs. It tends to make you feel old—but it also is so rewarding.
Of course, I can’t tell this story without my own perspective. I am honored, humbled and privileged to have started the environmental education program as the first full-time WCCB Naturalist in 1988. I can’t list every individual, but I’m grateful to the generous and kind people of this community and region that embraced the wild idea of a nature center. They helped immeasurably to create this legacy of learning and nature study that has become the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center. It certainly has taken a village, and I count myself blessed to have worked with the best co-workers, volunteers, community partners and friends over the past 32 years.
Here’s to nature hikes and school field trips; the shared stories and endless memories; the new discoveries and the “Ah-Ha!” moments; the cherished wildlife sightings and the subtle beauty of the native prairie; the treasured friends—old, new, those passed from this earth, and those I have yet to meet. Thank you, all, so very much for your part in creating our story. I invite and encourage you to share in the journey of our next 25 years—and beyond.