Cheryl Romo is an award-winning journalist and essayist. In addition, she's the former editor of Sacramento Magazine, Common Cause Magazine, and The Fortnightly. She lives in Roseville.
Liam Brothers, of Boy Scout Troop 1, works on his Eagle Scout project. They cleaned and painted the posts for the interpretive signs. Liam is on the right.
Life is a continuous process of renewal. Things wear out, fade into oblivion -- or just don’t make sense any longer. Such was the unfortunate situation with old trail and interpretive signs at Effie Yeaw Nature Center, the nearly 100-acre preserve on the American River Parkway in Carmichael.
Many of the signs had been vandalized or, in a few cases, there were no signs at all to help visitors navigate confusing dirt trails. And, ironically, some of the interpretive signs designed to help visitors comprehend what they were seeing described long-gone, drought-stricken trees or the kinds of wildlife that had once inhabited the now dried-up duck pond. “We decided to start over,” said Rachael Cowan, a staff naturalist helping to supervise the center’s new signs project.
The big problem was money. Paul Tebbel, the executive director, said everyone was aware new signs were needed, but there wasn’t enough money in the non-profit’s budget to do anything about it. Based on available printing estimates, the interpretive signs alone were going to cost $50 apiece. “The whole project was going to cost over $2,500, money that was not present,” he said.
The staff began shopping around. “We found a supplier who would print beautiful signs with special sun-resistant coating for less than $10 each. At that price, the whole project costs less than $1,000.”
But the Effie Yeaw Nature Center, named after a teacher-environmentalist who refused to ever take “no” for an answer, didn’t have $1,000 to spare for signs or anything else. So the small staff, which Tebbel likens to a well-oiled machine, brainstormed and put out a call for help that reverberated in waves of amazing grace, like an old-time barn raising.
Liam Brothers, a 17-year-old Jesuit High School student, stepped forward and said he’d been looking for an Eagle Scout project. A resident of Carmichael, Brothers grew up near the nature center and believed it a worthy cause. After he learned that $1,000 was needed to print new signs, he sent out 15 letters to family and friends asking them to contribute to the cause. The response was overwhelming. He raised more than the money needed -- all of it donated to the nature center’s signs project.
But the young man wanted to do more. Brothers volunteered to paint existing sign posts. Then he demonstrated his leadership abilities by persuading 20 other Eagle Scouts and their leaders to help him. Together, they cleaned, sanded and repaired existing signs, working in the sweltering heat of Summer in teams of three. It was, in the words of one observer, a remarkable achievement.
Other help followed. Soon the nature center’s call brought the Rotarians and businesses and retired professionals offering to help with manual labor, donations and materials.
And with all this unexpected generosity came the realization that new signs could be afforded. “We are now breaking even,” Tebbel said.
Who were these other white hats who rode to the rescue?
One group is an old friend whose members have often come to the aid of the nature center in times of need. “The Carmichael Rotary Club was interested in doing a project that would support our local community,” Rotarian Dick Bauer said. “We feel a kinship with the Effie Yeaw Nature Center as we hold our weekly evening meetings at Ancil Hoffman Park and many of our members use the park and nature center for recreation and relaxation.”
More than half of the club’s 35 members are involved in implementing the new trail signs. “In addition,” added Bauer, “I want to mention and thank Tim Berry of Berco Lumber, who has graciously donated the wood for our project. Tim's father-in-law, Jim Thompson, has been a member of Carmichael Rotary for over 50 years.”
Two men, Mike Cardwell and Gregg Hutchison, volunteered for whatever other grunt work needed doing. “We toiled together digging up signs and moving them around,” Cardwell said.
Both are recently retired professionals who said they and their wives, Denise and Beverly respectively, fell in love with the beauty of the nature center and felt an immediate kinship with the place and the humans involved in creating an environment of learning for children and adults.
Hutchison retired with his wife from AT&T in 2010. “We decided we had found our retirement jobs,” he said, adding that it’s a “great joy that these signs are finally being replaced, as many have deteriorated beyond usefulness. These new interpretive signs will be a great help in passing along Miss Effie’s teachings and assist in the entertainment and education of all who visit.”
His fellow grunt agreed. “It is my pleasure to help the staff create and maintain interpretive displays and signs with minimal expense,” Cardwell said. “My passion is the same as EYNC’s: educating the public about the natural world and the trailside signs are a big part of that, since lots of people walk the trails but never attend a program or guided walk.”
Cardwell.is a veteran law enforcement official with impressive credentials with the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department. His wife, Denise, is the manager of the Office of Professional Development for the California Department of Justice. After his retirement from the Sheriff’s Department, he moved to Sacramento where he returned to school and obtained a graduate degree in biology from California State University at Sacramento. When he’s not digging up signs, he’s affectionately known around the nature center as the “snake guy” because he’s conducting rattlesnake research on the preserve.
At this point, the end game is to have 49 new or improved interpretive signs and 14 directional signs up by Spring 2016. New trail maps are also in the works. Executive Director Tebbel believes the signs -- done in tasteful, muted tones to reflect the harmony of nature -- will offer a better way to communicate with people who want to understand more about what they’re seeing and experiencing.
“This is a nature study preserve, so part of our mission is to help people learn about the plants and animals of the area,” he said. “This can be done in many ways, but the best way is putting out these signs with good, stimulating information that we hope people will read. Remember, there is no obligation for people to come into the nature center [headquarters] before walking in the preserve, so we need to reach out to the many trail walkers in other ways.”
Heather Gabel, another staff naturalist spearheading the interpretive signs project, said she’s trying to incorporate fewer words in the descriptive plaques. “We want to preserve simplicity,” said the former zookeeper, who began as a volunteer and was hired on the staff earlier this year.
The new signs will also assist volunteer docents leading tours of school children and their teachers. “We do tours for kids with docents and there are sometimes 30 kids. We break the group into thirds,” Gabel said. “The signs will help kids figure out where they are.”
Naturalist Cowan was training to become a teacher until one of her university professors “opened my eyes to birding.” That’s when she began volunteering at the nature center on weekends and found a new career. When a staff job opened up nearly two years ago, she said “yes” -- and, since then, one of the most exciting projects she’s worked on is the naming and re-naming of the walking trails. Her favorite? “Natoma,” she said. “It’s the Maidu word for heading toward water in the East.” Some trails, however, will remain unnamed. “We don’t want to create too much signage.”
Meanwhile, Tebbel assures that the Effie Yeaw Nature Center’s process of renewal and evolution ain’t over yet. “This is the first of what we hope will be many improvements,” he said. “Our next goal is to design new signs for each of the major entrances to the preserve. Ultimately we hope to completely redo the interior of the nature center, so it will accommodate large groups better and will include new, exciting and (if we secure adequate funding) technologically intriguing exhibits. That last part is three-to-five years in the future.”
Bringing people to nature and nature to people for over 30 years