50 Years of Connecting People to Nature: Warner Park Nature Center

by Vera Roberts and Sandy Bivens

From humble beginnings in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Nashville, the Warner Park Nature Center (WPNC) was established as the first nature center in Middle Tennessee and one of the first in the state.  WPNC’s staff person, Naturalist David Shaffer, lived on site and was responsible for everything – leading environmental education programs, building trails, drawing maps – and created a framework and vision upon which the next 50 years of WPNC could grow and flourish.

Nature Center, 1975. Farmhouse that was WPNC’s original museum & office; now serves as a Library and houses the BIRD Program staff and BIRD Education Classroom.

The Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) program is a main reason WPNC was established. In 1973, then Metro Parks Director Charles Spears and Superintendent of Recreation Division Mary Wherry heard about a federal grant program, YCC, that was available in Tennessee. This program hired youth ages 15-18 to do conservation work on public lands and operated at WPNC from 1974-1980.  Youth completed 30 hours of hard physical work and engaged in an additional 10 hours of environmental education programming each week. Today, many YCC alumni still say, “This was the best job I ever had. It changed me forever!”.

The Youth Conservation Corps served from 1974-1980 and were integral in the creation of WPNC infrastructure and programs.

For five decades WPNC has provided high quality environmental education experiences for people of all ages. WPNC has facilitated the protection, enhancement, and expansion of natural area parkland and fostered environmental conservation and action far beyond its physical boundaries.  The Nature Center is operated by the Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation and is located within the Warner Parks, Nashville’s largest natural area park at over 3,000 acres.

WPNC Mission:

1) To Provide Quality Environmental Education & Responsible Recreation

The hallmark of the WPNC’s mission is environmental education (EE), which provides direct experiences in nature, natural history appreciation and knowledge, protecting and enhancing Warner Parks’ natural and cultural resources, and addressing environmental issues.

2) To Help Protect, Preserve, Restore & Manage the Park Ecosystem and all Natural Resources

Ensuring that nature endures is, and always has been, a fundamental value of WPNC.  Protecting while learning about wildlife, waterways, plant populations, and cultural resources is integral to WPNC’s work, Many of the Parks’ physical structures, organizational support, and special projects can be linked directly back to the nature center.

3) To Raise Awareness, Foster Respect, and Share Enthusiasm for the Natural World

WPNC has always engaged an extensive and varied array of community partners, volunteers, interns, and professional peers, thereby extending the reach of EE and environmental conservation well beyond the boundaries of Warner Parks.  WPNC’s dedicated staff has always been committed to sharing enthusiasm for nature authentically by taking the time to simply go outside and interact with visitors and nature, and this passion is evidenced by the diversity and number of those served by WPNC.

50 Years of WPNC Programs and Initiatives

Legacy Naturalists

In 1977, Bob Parrish, Deb Beazley, Sandy Bivens, and Dr. Charles Farrell began working at WPNC.  Bob and Deb started on the same day, February 25, and Sandy came on board in June.  None of the trio had any experience in conservation, environmental education, or natural resources management, and over the 40+ years all have been employed in Warner Parks, they learned “on the job” and were the driving force behind many WPNC and Warner Parks institutions that still exist today. 
Retired Vanderbilt Zoologist Dr. Charles Farrell’s expertise, enthusiasm, and love for life, nature, and Earth were directly responsible for the growth and success of nature center educational programs.  He was the environmental education coordinator for YCC and mentored Bob, Sandy, Deb, and many others, providing them with on-the-job training in all areas of natural history and field research. Dr. Farrell inspired them to protect and always continue to fight for and protect natural areas and resources throughout Warner Parks and middle Tennessee.

Legacy Naturalists: Dr. Charles Farrell, Deb Beazley, Sandy Bivens, and Bob Parrish, c. 1980’s

In 1990 YCC was “reinvented” as S.W.A.T. (Summer Warner Action Teams), eventually becoming S.W.E.A.T. (Special Work Education and Trails).  Modeled after YCC, SWEAT used FOWP grant funds to hire young adults during the summer months to work on the WPNC grounds and maintain the Parks many miles of hiking trails. For over 25 years the team was managed by Naturalist Deb Beazley until her retirement in 2017.  Today, SWEAT includes a winter and summer crew and is led by Paul Fowler, Director of Resource Management for Friends of Warner Parks, in partnership with WPNC. 

The legacy of YCC continues today. Seasonal SWEAT teams work in summer and winter on trails and special projects throughout Warner Parks.
B.I.R.D. Program

WPNC’s BIRD Program has provided generations of families, students, and park visitors the rare opportunity to see a bird in the hand, to learn the importance of land and water stewardship, and feel inspired to take actions in their home and community to ensure the long-term conservation of birds. Established by Sandy Bivens in 1982, today the BIRD Program manages multiple avian research projects, including bird banding in all four seasons and focused long-term research on species such as Eastern Bluebirds, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Barn Swallows, Northern Saw-whet Owls, and Purple Martins. In 2020, BIRD Program staff and volunteers installed the first dual-frequency MOTUS wildlife tracking receiver station in TN, and since then have been using cutting-edge Motus technology to better understand the full life cycle and conservation and management needs of birds.

Bird Research coordinators Laura Cook and Sandy Bivens conducting breeding bird banding research.
Urban Nature Program

In 1988 Sandy Bivens created the Urban Nature Program in partnership Metro Parks Community Centers and the Cultural Arts Division.  Today the Urban Nature Program connects Nashville’s urban youth with high-quality EE experiences through an innovative partnership between Metro Parks Community Centers and WPNC.  Program offerings include after-school Nature Clubs and P.E.N. (People Exploring Nature) Pals, a series of summer day camps and fall night programs hosted in the Warner Parks.

Community center youth learning about earthworms during the after-school Nature Detectives program.
Environmental Education for Schools

In the 1980’s Hillwood High School began engaging students from the Environmental Club, Ecology and Environmental Science classes with WPNC’s High School Naturalist program.  This partnership eventually became a field lab program series for students taking APES (Advanced Placement Environmental Science) and college science courses now annually serves over 1,000 students from ten separate schools. While field trips have been offered since the 70’s, today all school programs follow the cutting-edge BEETLES (Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning, & Expertise Sharing) approach, engaging students to learn science through direct experiences in nature.

Elementary students engaging in hands-on exploration during a school field trip.

A Focus on Native Plants

Since the 1980’s WPNC staff, volunteers, and partners began an ambitious project to removal invasive pest plants, such as non-native bush honeysuckle and privet.  Since its establishment in 1987, Friends of Warner Parks, has been removing non-natives and replanting with natives, leading regular volunteer “Pullin’ Parties” and funding professional invasive removal projects. WPNC’s landscaping – including demonstration wildflower, fern, pollinator, bird, and organic vegetable gardens, showcase the use of native plants on a residential scale and are used in educational programs.  Wildflower hikes, tree hikes, fern programs, moss investigations, and native landscaping workshops are presented regularly.

Nature Play

WPNC’s “Nature Play” area was the dream of WPNC Director, Vera Roberts, and was constructed in 2009 – the first public unstructured outdoor play space in Tennessee – in response to “nature deficit disorder” and the premise that children’s outdoor experiences were being undermined by screens, overscheduling, and unsubstantiated fear of nature. The original space was designed by landscape architect Tara Armistead and built by Deb Beazley/S.W.E.A.T. and has undergone an incredible 2023 expansion in honor of WPNC’s 50th Anniversary.

Families engaged in unstructured outdoor play at WPNC’s Nature Play area.

Celebrating 50 Years

Today there are more staff, projects, and programs than ever before. The WPNC brand is new and fresh and prominently telling the story on all print, electronic, and social media platforms.  Volunteers assist with every aspect of operations: bird research and data management, visitor services, educational programs, caring for the gardens and grounds, and so much more. 

FOWP is a partner advocating for Warner Parks and the Nature Center, and annually funds staff and special projects to offset Metro’s budget limitations. WPNC hosts fundraisers like the Hummingbird Happy Hour, nature-themed art exhibits and celebrated special events such as the Winter Solstice Celebration.  Current Strategic goals are aimed at diversifying the WPNC audience, modeling best practices in sustainability, and reinstating urban environmental education programming in Metro Parks community centers.

WPNC facilities and programs are free and open to the public and serve a diverse range of visitors.  For five decades WPNC has been held up as a model of best practices and innovation within the environmental learning center community, particularly throughout the region and state.  Nature Center staff have served on multiple non-profit boards, presented at countless state, regional, and national conferences, and won an impressive number of professional awards. 

This year celebrates 50 years of incredible achievements, remembering that Warner Park Nature Center is more than a place, a mission, a program, or a destination and that it is a web of people and their stories, connected over generations with each other and the natural grandeur of Warner Parks. 

Celebrate with us by following us on social media, visiting the 50th Anniversary webpage, or attending the 50th Anniversary Celebration on October 28th from 1-3 p.m.   

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