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Evolving legacy of Runge Nature Center

JC facility to mark 20th anniversary

Spencer Irvin, 6, gets an eye-to-eye look at Runge Nature Center’s resident bull snake after participating in an Eagle Adventure program. (File photo)

Spencer Irvin, 6, gets an eye-to-eye look at Runge Nature Center’s resident bull snake after participating in an Eagle Adventure program. (File photo) Photo by News Tribune.

Whether it’s plants, animals or people, the Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City has been building communities for 20 years.

On the grounds of the old Dulle farm, the Missouri Department of Conservation began soon after the Design for Conservation was passed by voters in 1976, creating and preserving habitats for public education.

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Members of the crowd young and old alike duck as “Trevor,” a Eurasian Eagle-Owl, takes flight and glides down to his post in front of the stage during the World Bird Sanctuary’s “Wings Over Water” presentation at Runge Nature Center. (File photo)

Since the doors opened July 1993 to the resource center and trails, Runge staff and volunteers have been connecting with local individuals and organizations to promote awareness and action for the conservation of Missouri’s living resources.

“We want people to understand what people can do to bring wildlife to their area,” said manager Kathy Cavender.

Although the Jefferson City nature center was the last of the initial four centers targeted in the state’s urban areas, the farmland was purchased in the early 1980s.

“It was neat, because we knew it was coming,” Cavender said.

Several additional nature centers have been built statewide, since then.

Each center is charged with reaching its unique region. However, since so many visitors come to the Capital City, Cavender said the Runge Nature Center “lives in both worlds.”

“We don’t want people to come once; we want them to keep coming with new ways to get involved,” Cavender said.

Before Missouri 179 was built, a Woods Loop walking trail explored 15 acres, which cannot be accessed today. So the trail systems were reworked before opening day, complying with the American with Disabilities Act and following Wears Creek.

The site has increased the ability for public education.

Hikes and public programs had been hosted through the department’s main office, prior to the nature center.

Now, interpretive staff can do surveys to better understand who audiences are and what groups they need to reach.

After 20 years, the center is finding the need to increase marketing, either because they have become commonplace to those who know they’re there or new folks still don’t know they exist.

While programs for children and the hands-on exhibits might be highly visible, the center strives to offer something for everyone, Cavender said.

“People need to be involved in an emotional way to support the idea and to keep our outdoor resources strong and healthy,” she said. “We can’t manage forest, fish and wildlife without the support of our citizens.”

A renewed push for environmental welfare has dovetailed with research noting humans’ connection to nature, Cavender said.

“We’re just starting to realize our health depends on whether we’re connected to outdoor resources,” Cavender said.

Labeled “Nature Deficit Disorder,” science is defining how the outdoors affects humans.

Runge has partnered with health care facilities to promote healthy living practices.

“It’s in its infancy; how do we connect our programs to health?” Cavender said. “It’s more than ‘butterflies are beautiful.’”

In addition the shift in their programming, the local center hopes to renovate its permanent exhibits, too.

The center has more than 3,000 square feet of exhibit space, including a freshwater aquarium, live amphibians and reptiles, and white-tailed deer.

Inside the 27,000-square-foot building also is a 200-seat auditorium, three classrooms, an indoor wildlife viewing area, a nature library, mounted animals and a small gift shop.

More than 1.8 million visitors have stopped at the 112 acres since 1993.

Tending to the native plants and keeping the exotic plants in check is a year-round prospect.

“It’s hard work and a constant effort,” Cavender said.

In preparing for the 20th birthday celebration Saturday, Cavender has been looking back at pictures of when the center first opened.

Their deliberate plantings and prunings are taking shape, she said.

However, the overall grounds have been planted for a 100-year vision, so many of the plantings are long-term investments.

As the land changes, so does the variety and census of birds and wildlife.

“We really enjoy when we see a new one in the area,” Cavender said.

This year, they have added sightings of a painted bunting, a new warbler and a sandpiper to the more than 100 species of birds for the site.

“You realize all of this work has made a difference,” Cavender said.

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