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Lake Merritt’s Nature Center continues on despite budget cuts

on September 6, 2010

As Stephanie Benavidez, the supervising naturalist for the Rotary Nature Center at Lake Merritt, is busy working on the center’s budget, a woman stops by her office and asks the difference between a greater and a lesser scaup duck. Without skipping a beat, Benavidez explains that in the sun the greater scaup’s feathered head has a green sheen while the lesser scaup’s is more purplish.

Benavidez knows all about duck species because she’s worked at the Rotary Nature Center for over 35 years. But now, thanks to city budget cuts, she is its only full time staff member. With only one full-time person on the job, and five part-time employees, it’s harder for the center to keep up with all of its work.

The Rotary Nature Center is part of Lake Merritt’s Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1870, making it the first wildlife refuge in North America. This means that it’s a legally protected area; certain areas are sectioned off so people won’t bother the birds and animals. Throughout the year, around 50 species of waterfowl, from white pelicans to snowy egrets to black-crowned night herons, visit the refuge to roost, bathe and nest. The Nature Center’s staff gives visitors, who drop by, information about these birds as well as other local animals and plants. They also teach classes about the environment, history of the area and ecology.

The Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge is a protected area for birds and animals.

Lake Merritt is a natural estuary, where fresh water from the lake mixes with salt water from the bay—that’s one of the reasons it attracts such a diverse array of birds. It’s also a rest stop for birds along the Pacific migration path. Throughout the year, people can see different types of migrating birds such as hawks and song sparrows that either are stopping to feed or just passing overhead.

“There’s six to eight species of pelicans in the world,” says Benavidez. “Two can be seen at Lake Merritt.” Right off the shore, these prehistoric-looking birds with giant pouched bills plunge dive into the water from 30 feet up, searching for fish. Inside the center, people can look at stuffed versions of the pelicans and get a closer look at how their unique bills work to catch their food.

The Rotary Nature Center has stuffed animals on display like this cougar.

There’s also information in the center about local bugs, birds and animals, like black bears, bees and cougars. Behind the center, there’s a small pond that houses both turtles and iguanas. In front of the center is a gated area that’s open and full of wild birds, including Canadian geese, mallard ducks and pigeons, that come and go as they please. People can walk up, take pictures and watch the birds fly about.

But over the past five years, with the state, county and city cutting parks and recreation funding, the nature center’s overall budget has been halved, reducing the center’s ability to attend to the public in its full capacity. “Through the budget reduction, we lost our rangers,” says Benavidez. “They enforce the quality of life in our parks.” Rangers patrol Oakland’s parks to stop crime, ensuring that park rules are followed and people are respecting the wildlife. Over the past seven years, the City of Oakland has reduced the overall number of park rangers from over 20 to just three.

Benavidez says it’s difficult for her to provide enough work hours to financially support her staff so she coordinates with other parks and recreation facilities, like the Lake Merritt Boating Center, to get them more shifts.

Even though she is short-staffed, Benavidez is determined to keep the center up and running. “It’s about how important and engrained this facility is in the lives of the people of Oakland,” she says. “A city has grown up around it.” Visitors from all over the world come to see the refuge and “there’s a vested interest to maintain the quality of the facility,” she says.

A female black-crowned night heron perches in the center’s gated area.

“The city’s intent is that the level of care does not go below what we need to take care of everything,” Benavidez says. She is optimistic that the city will never cut funding so far back that the center must be shut down. “They know the value of this center to the public,” she says.

The Rotary Nature Center is open seven days a week from 9 am to 4pm but is occasionally closed during furlough days. For more information about the classes and programs offered call (510) 238-3739 during business hours.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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