Press Club

Nature center supporters call for additional operating hours

Gulf Branch Nature Center (Staff Photo by Jay Westcott)

Supporters of Gulf Branch Nature Center are pushing to expand the hours of Arlington nature centers, as the 2023 county budget proposes to keep hours at pandemic levels.

In a letter to the community last week, Friends of Gulf Branch Nature Center president Duke Banks took issue with the County Manager’s proposed budget, which would keep the county’s two nature centers open only three days a week. That’s in contrast with the centers’ six day a week schedule prior to the pandemic.

The reasons for the cuts are due to safety and practicality.

A new Department of Parks and Recreation directive, as director Jane Rudolph noted in a budget work session earlier this month, is that two staff members are now required to open a county facility when previously only one was needed. That policy was put in place in response to a sexual assault that occurred at the Barcroft Recreation Center in 2019.

The other is that with more virtual programs — and school field trips still restricted, in part due to a bus driver shortage — nature center staff are more often going into schools instead of students coming to the facilities themselves.

Banks says that his organization understands the challenges, but believes it’s important to hire a few extra employees to keep the nature centers open as often as possible.

“Friends of GBNC understands the need for safety, and we laud nature center staff members on their flexibility in continuing to provide programs during COVID — both to the public and schools. However, these emergency initiatives don’t justify closing Arlington’s remaining nature centers three days a week,” Banks says in the letter. “Our nature centers anchor the creative new programming, providing essential facilities like exhibits, restrooms and shelter (during storms) and serving as a physical focal point that makes nature accessible to everyone, young or old, rich or poor.”

As Rudolph brought up at the work session, staffing and hiring remains a challenge across the department (as well as in the county as a whole). She noted that the department is making an effort to “meet people where they are” by taking nature center programming out of the facilities and into community centers, as well as schools.

“There is nature center programming happening, it just isn’t always happening in the nature center,” Rudolph said at the work session.

Banks and Friends of the Gulf Branch Nature Center disagreed with the approach, saying that structured programming shouldn’t be a driver of when the nature centers should be open.

“Many folks visit nature centers without attending a program and thus would be denied access to the nature centers at a time when the public’s visits to our parks have significantly increased during COVID,” Banks said in the letter. “With our highly urbanized environment and the pandemic-related fallout, children need the respite of enjoying nature now more than ever.”

The two county-run nature centers, Gulf Branch and Long Branch, averaged about 21,000 visitors annually in 2018 and 2019, according to a county report.

Rudolph made a point to say that the operational changes may not be permanent. The department is currently evaluating not just how many days the nature centers should be open, but their hours as well.

The centers are currently open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with no evening hours, but Rudolph said that there’s a possibility of using some money to keep the centers open later this year, after kids are out of school and parents return from work. This could make centers more accessible without opening on additional days, officials said.

Friends of the Gulf Branch Nature Center is not the only organization advocating for bring nature centers hours back to pre-pandemic levels. During the work session, representatives from the county’s Park and Recreation and Forestry and Natural Resources commissions also expressed a desire to have the nature centers open longer.

Supporters of Gulf Branch Nature Center are asking those who agree with them to send an email to the County Board and County Manager expressing “how important it is to keep our nature centers accessible to the public and how disappointed you are by the proposed cuts to the nature centers’ public hours.”

The full letter from the organization is below.

Hello Friends of Gulf Branch Nature supporters!

My name is Duke Banks, and I’m the new President of Friends of Gulf Branch Nature Center (Friends of GBNC).

During the COVID pandemic, the organization has been quiet. But now we are ready to reengage, and my mission is to revitalize the Friends of GBNC and to advocate not only for Gulf Branch Nature Center, but also for all nature centers.

OUR FIRST CHALLENGE: We must respond promptly to the County Manager’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget (which will be approved in early April). In it, the manager proposes to cut nature center hours from the pre-pandemic level of 6 days a week, to 3 days a week–a 50% reduction in the hours the center is open to the public.

Why are these cuts being proposed?

  1. A Department of Parks & Recreation (DPR) directive has been issued–for security reasons–that require DPR facilities to have two staffers present before a facility may be opened. Previously, only one staffer was required to open a facility.
  2. During COVID, nature center staff pivoted toward virtual-only programs. When schools reopened, staff provided programs at the schools, given that field trips to the nature centers were not yet feasible.

Friends of GBNC understands the need for safety, and we laud nature center staff members on their flexibility in continuing to provide programs during COVID–both to the public and schools.

However, these emergency initiatives don’t justify closing Arlington’s remaining nature centers three days a week. Our nature centers anchor the creative new programming, providing essential facilities like exhibits, restrooms and shelter (during storms) and serving as a physical focal point that makes nature accessible to everyone, young or old, rich or poor.

We also disagree with DPR Director Jane Rudolph’s recent response to a question about center hours: She intends to use nature center programming as a basis for determining public access to center facilities. Many folks visit nature centers without attending a program and thus would be denied access to the nature centers at a time when the public’s visits to our parks have significantly increased during COVID.

With our highly urbanized environment and the pandemic-related fallout, children need the respite of enjoying nature now more than ever. APS and private-school field trips to the nature centers should be restarted ASAP. Our kids should not be “welcomed” with a “Closed” sign on the door.

In a $1.4 billion budget, funding to add a few more temporary employees, enabling the centers to reopen to the public at pre-pandemic levels, is NOT a major expense.

Though the Park and Recreation and the Forestry and Natural Resources Commissions have expressed concern about the reduction in hours at the nature centers, the manager and County Board must hear from the public if we want nature centers’ public hours to be restored to normal, pre-pandemic levels.

Two ways you can make a difference:

  1. Please send an email to the County Board at [email protected] and County Manager at [email protected]. Tell them how important it is to keep our nature centers accessible to the public and how disappointed you are by the proposed cuts to the nature centers’ public hours. Ask that they budget accordingly to keep the nature centers opened 6 days a week. Use the template below to cut and paste or customize your own message:

Dear Chair Cristol and members of the County Board,

Please reject the proposed budget’s plan to cut our nature centers’ public hours from 6 days down to just 3 days per week. Our nature centers anchor not only programming but also provide essential facilities like exhibits, restrooms and shelter (during storms) that make nature accessible to everyone, young or old, rich or poor.

Given Arlington’s increasing urbanization, we need more access to nature, not less. Getting back to normal after a punishing pandemic must include restoring the public’s access to Arlington’s nature centers. Please provide the necessary funding to maintain the pre-pandemic 6-days-a-week level of service.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

[Insert Your Name Here]
  1. Consider making comments to the County Board at next week’s public budget hearing–Tuesday, March 29, 2022, beginning at 7PM:https://www.arlingtonva.us/Government/Departments/County-Board/Events/County-Board-Budget-Hearing.

See Guidelines for Speaking at Budget and Tax Rate Public Hearings (arlingtonva.us). Register in advance here to speak on Tues., 3-29-2022, 7 pm: Budget Hearing Speaker Sign-up Form (arlingtonva.us)

Many thanks for your support and keep an eye out for more news and information from Friends of GBNC coming soon!

Best,

Duke Banks, President

Friends of Gulf Branch Nature Center

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