Director of Springbrook Nature Center retires after 35 years on job

One day he might be escorting a three-foot long orphan alligator rescued to the safety of a bathtub in his own home or the next day he’ll be traipsing across Springbrook’s fields with net in hand, wading through reed canary grasses rising well above his rimless glasses, to capture butterflies for a lepidoptera count.

After 35 years as director of Springbrook Nature Center, Siah St. Clair will retire at the end of the month. He will be back, however, to volunteer on some of the programs he started, he said. File photo by Elyse Kaner

After 35 years as director of Springbrook Nature Center, Siah St. Clair will retire at the end of the month. He will be back, however, to volunteer on some of the programs he started, he said. File photo by Elyse Kaner

Siah St. Clair, a man who enjoys creating events to foster community, is retiring after 35 years of serving as Springbrook Nature Center’s director.

“What’s really great about this job is it brings together the things I love the most,” St. Clair said. “The diversity of interacting with people and the diversity of interacting with nature.”

His last day is April 30. So far, a replacement has not been named.

But thanks to St. Clair’s foresight and attuned leadership abilities, the center is positioned to continue to flourish. So will he. Just in a different capacity. As a volunteer, most likely.

St. Clair says he appreciates the publicity and attention paid to him as director over the years but fully realizes that Springbrook’s successes are a community effort, with his help, that has brought prominence and joy to the center.

He worries, he says lightheartedly, comparing himself to the all-knowing Oz, who sits behind a screen ruling the great Emerald City, only to be revealed in the end that it was all smoke and mirrors that ran the opulent empire.

But in this case, Fridley’s Springbrook Nature Center is the city of green, and St. Clair is the omniscient one. A man who, with the help of his staff and volunteers and an impassioned Springbrook Nature Center Foundation, has grown Springbrook from 5,000 visitors a year when he first came to the center in 1978 to today’s 200,000 visitors a year.

St. Clair, 64, humbly casts aside any credit for growing the center. Rather, he sees it as a joint effort. The working together among his dedicated staff and volunteers, for instance, that has rocketed Pumpkin Night in the Park’s attendance from about 500 attendees to an annual 3,500 visitors. St. Clair started the event, once hosted on Halloween night, when he first came to the center.

A nurturer

St. Clair sees himself as a leader, an enabler who nurtures growth, one who stands aside and allows things to happen, rather than managing from the top down.

Like the time his staff suggested Spooky Bingo – now a popular tradition – for the annual Halloween event.

“I thought it was about the dumbest idea I had ever heard,” he says, smiling.

Little did St. Clair realize people would be lined up to enter the bingo tent to sit down and play the popular game.

Or the time in 1987 when biologist Ron Refsnider proposed a bird banding program at the center. One of the ideas was to track how the bird population had changed after the 1986 tornado ripped through Springbrook. St. Clair supported the proposal. The two men designed the program. The center now holds 16 bird-banding sessions a years, yielding 25 years of data about birds living in and migrating through Springbrook. St. Clair describes it as “the richest data base of song bird information in the Midwest.”

Said Jack Kirk, director of Fridley parks and recreation department, who was on the job when St. Clair first came to Springbrook: “I just always admired how knowledgeable and how passionate he was at connecting people with nature and about how he cared for Springbrook as if it were his own personal property.”

His job

Among St. Clair’s many work responsibilities at the center, he oversees a $408,500 budget and a staff of six FTEs, which increases to about 20, including seasonal part-time workers, in the summertime. He manages the center’s three miles of trails, maintains the interpretive center, bridges, boardwalks and gazebos, and he manages the natural resources base, including wetlands, woodlands, wildlife and prairies. He heads programs, school programs, summer camps and special events and he works alongside the many volunteers – nearly 1,300 in 2012 at last count- who generously gave more than 17,700 hours of their time working at the center.

St. Clair is first on the list to receive calls at 2 a.m. when a stray mouse inadvertently scampers in front of a motion detector tripping the security system, at which time St. Clair rushes to the center where he meets up with the police for a follow-up inspection. He won’t miss the early morning calls, he says.

And there was the time St. Clair was called upon to manage an onslaught of more than 7,000 visitors, both locally and nationally, who over a two-month period journeyed to the center to catch a glimpse of a seldom seen boreal owl.

“It was one of those extremely rare things that happen only once in a lifetime,” St. Clair said.

His accomplishments

St. Clair’s accomplishments are many. Over the years, he has enlarged Springbrook’s trails – now 10-feet wide – to make them more accessible. He designed them with twists and curves to imbue walkers with a heightened visual experience filled with nature’s surprises around each turn. He worked with the city of Fridley to establish permanent ponds and floating boardwalks.

He has helped supervise about 40 Eagle Scout building projects over the years – a wooden bench, a new bridge, the aquarium inside the center, bird feeders, the amphitheater and more.

In the 1990s, Springbrook was featured in the Minnesota Parent magazine as the best nature center in Minnesota. The DNR’s Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Magazine named the center as one of 13 of the hottest spots to see wildlife and the Star Tribune newspaper named it a must see place.

In 1986 when a tornado whipped through the center lingering in Springbrook for 16 minutes and wreaking havoc, St. Clair headed the effort for cleanup and restoration of the center.

“It was an amazing coming together of community to help repair damage that had been done,” St. Clair said.

The special fund-raising events St. Clair has brought to the center have grown to epic proportions – not only the annual Halloween celebration Pumpkin Night in the Park, featuring hundreds of carved and lit pumpkins, but the annual Spring Fling, with its cast of volunteers dressed up as storybook characters to help usher in the new season. When it first started more than 30 years ago, the center used real eggs for an egg hunt and drew about 100 participants. Last month, the pre-Easter event drew more than 1,300 people.

Siah St. Clair wades through canary reed grasses taller than he is to catch a dragonfly as part of Springbrook’s annual dragonfly report. File photo by Elyse Kaner

Siah St. Clair wades through canary reed grasses taller than he is to catch a dragonfly as part of Springbrook’s annual dragonfly report. File photo by Elyse Kaner

With the help of St. Clair’s leadership, after 15 years of planning, a bicycle trail was built in 2009 in front of Springbrook (the north end) just off of 85th Avenue N.W.

The center is now undergoing what it calls its SPRING (Sanctuary Protection and Renewal Into the Next Generation) project kicked off in 2011. St. Clair says he is proud to have been part of the planning, which started as early as 1999. The project rooted in sustainability is designed to preserve a majority of the nature center’s 127 acres, focusing use of the center within a seven-acre area at the front of the park.

Changes

When St. Clair started at the center, the trails were dirt paths and the parking lot capacity was 12 vehicles. Over the years, he has seen many changes. In 1973-74, before St. Clair came to the center, the city was facing financial hardship. Springbrook was on the chopping block. It would be turned into a golf course. But the community rallied and defeated the proposal. Thirty years later the proposal re-emerged. Thanks to the community again stepping forward, the idea was shot down.

St. Clair vividly recalls the last attempt.

“All of a sudden you had all of these people coming out of the woodwork,” St. Clair said. Like the people who hiked through Springbrook with a loved one before he or she had died. Or an industrial accident victim who as part of his healing process strolled through the park.

“They had such an emotional commitment to the nature center,” St. Clair said. “They were so passionate about it.”

In 1981, thanks in part to a grant from the Metropolitan Council and the state, the interpretive center was built. The center now had electricity, restrooms with running water, a building that has allowed for the influx of programming that has become so popular at Springbrook today.

“So that made a huge difference,” St. Clair said. The number of visitors started increasing.

The manner of doing business has also changed at Springbrook. When St. Clair in his earlier years suggested charging a nominal fee for programs, he was reprimanded for the idea, St. Clair said. People shouldn’t have to pay extra. Their tax dollars should cover the cost, the city postured. But St. Clair figured people would value the experience more if they paid for it. Today, times have changed. St. Clair is expected to generate 25 percent of his budget through revenues and fees, translating to about $93,000.

“Few people have had as much of an impact on Fridley and the north metro as Siah St. Clair,” said Malcolm Mitchell, chairman of the Springbrook Nature Center Foundation, in a written statement.

“Springbrook has been his life. He has influenced thousands of people – children and grown ups alike – by enriching their lives with nature and increasing their understanding of it.”

A curious child

St. Clair was raised in Adrian,Mich., about 70 miles from Detroit. A tree-climbing, at times poison ivy-covered, and often bee-stung, curious child, fascinated by nature, he knew at the early age of four or five that he wanted to go into science. He would run around and catch bugs, frogs, snakes and caterpillars. And baby birds. He recalls his dad’s repeated lament.

“Ye gods! What do you have now?” he would say.

His parents gave the young St. Clair a corner of his own in the basement of their home with a desk and a lab for conducting experiments. A cage was reserved for a small rattle snake St. Clair kept.

“I was a little different, but it all paid off in the long run,” he said.

By age 10 he started shooting photos of nature with his Star Trek camera, the same one featured in the Audubon Magazine. One that could take close-ups. He saved up to buy more equipment and became adept at the craft, something that has served him well at Springbrook.

St. Clair graduated from Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, with a degree in biology and chemistry. He earned his master’s degree in environmental interpretation and natural resource management from Michigan State in East Lansing.

But he quickly learned he wanted to spend time with people, preferably in nature, rather than in a secluded “cubby hole with a microscope.”

When he first visited Michigan State University to check out its graduate program in environmental interpretation, he was intrigued.

“I said, ‘you mean they really pay people for that? I said sign me up’,” he said. “I’m so glad that I found that path at that time because it’s been great. It really has.”

St. Clair’s first job out of college was director of Wethersfield Nature Center in Wethersfield (a suburb of Hartford), Conn. The 120-acre center was similar to Springbrook, but with a 300-year history. St. Clair started his job sharing a desk with another worker in the park and recreation department. He stayed for six years.

When his former wife missed the Midwest, they decided to move to the Twin Cities, where St. Clair scored his job at Springbrook.

He’ll miss the people

St. Clair says he’ll miss the people the most, the interaction with staff and volunteers. Daily lunches with staff. People calling and asking him to identify a particular specimen. Their stories.

But he won’t miss some of the minimal political wrangles, the vandalism, the early morning calls, the frustrations of break-ins in the parking lot, although fewer incidents have occurred lately, St. Clair said. Outside security cameras are slated to be installed.

In his retirement, St. Clair has much to draw upon.

He will continue to volunteer at Springbrook. He looks forward to continuing to coordinate some of the programs he initiated – bird banding, butterfly and dragonfly surveys, photography club and the garden club, he said.

St. Clair also plans to do some home improvements and set up a workshop in his garage, where he will build cabinets.

St. Clair looks upon his tenure at Springbrook as a gift – interacting in nature with people of different ages and cultures, from business owners to at-risk youth – the entire gamut of community.

“It’s been a blessing for me,” he says. “I don’t know how I could have fallen into something better for me.”

*****

An open house reception will be held to honor Siah St. Clair, director of Springbrook Nature Center, Sunday, May 5, 3 to 6 p.m. Short program at 4 p.m. Public is invited. St. Clair will retire at the end of the month after serving as the center’s director for 35 years. Springbrook is located at 100 85th Ave. N.W., Fridley.

Elyse Kaner is at elyse.kaner@ecm-inc.com

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