Don’t expect hours of operation at Arlington’s two county-government nature centers to return to pre-pandemic levels in the coming year, or maybe ever, but local leaders say that doesn’t mean nature programs won’t have priority in coming years.
“We need to bring nature to where people are . . . meet people where they are,” Department of Parks and Recreation director Jane Rudolph said during a work session on the department’s fiscal 2023 budget.
But that kind of thinking has run into opposition from some nature-center advocates, who want to see services returned to a more pre-COVID routine and have launched a budget-season counteroffensive to get their way.
Gulf Branch and Long Branch nature centers were shut down in March 2020 when the pandemic hit, and like many Arlington-government operations, were painfully slow to reopen. Before the pandemic, both centers were open Tuesdays through Sundays; currently, if you include Potomac Overlook Regional Park (located in Arlington but run by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority/NOVA Parks), there is at least one nature center in Arlington open each of those six days.
At other times, local staff may be out at schools or other venues, Rudolph said.
“There’s nature-center programming happening; it might not be happening in the nature center,” she said.
But advocates for the nature centers have begun to mobilize. Duke Banks, president of Friends of Gulf Branch Nature Center, sent a missive to like-minded people urging they contact County Board members to press for more funding in the fiscal 2023 budget.
“In a $1.4 billion budget, enabling the centers to reopen to the pre-pandemic levels is not a major expense,” he said.
Banks said keeping the individual nature centers at a 3-day-a-week service level was unacceptable, particularly as it relates to the county’s youth.
“With our highly urbanized environment and the pandemic-related fallout, children need the respite of enjoying nature now more than ever,” he said.
“Field trips to the nature centers should be restarted ASAP. Our kids should not be ‘welcomed’ with a ‘Closed’ sign on the door.”
The two county-run local nature centers occupy a place not unlike the library system, the school system’s planetarium or the Phoebe Hall Knipling Outdoor Lab: Beloved by the public but sometimes taken for granted by county leaders and budget-crunchers. Others of a more Machiavellian bent suggest proposing cuts in those programs is a way for bureaucrats to turn out the public to budget hearings, pressing the County Board to restore funding while not cutting any other staff budget proposals.
At the budget forum with Rudolph, at least one board member offered up fond memories of the Gulf Branch and Long Branch offerings.
“We used to take our children to the nature centers on weekends quite regularly, many many years ago now,” County Board member Libby Garvey said at the budget hearing.
Rudolph said her hope for the coming year was to use funding for temporary workers to increase hours at the nature center, including perhaps evening hours, then over the coming year take a deeper look at hours, staffing and programming.
That, to County Board members, seemed a fair approach.
“You’ve got so much on your plate right now,” Garvey acknowledged. “You can’t concentrate on everything at once.”