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Back from the brink



Bear Creek and Fountain Creek nature centers are oases on the edges of Colorado Springs' urban creep. They're less-glamorous cousins to Garden of the Gods and Palmer Park, but anyone who visits them knows they're perfect for lunchtime getaways or family outings.

Todd Marts, who's seen parks and wildlife work magic on kids and desk jockeys alike, is the recreation and cultural services manager for El Paso County Parks. Translation: He oversees the centers' operations and programs, including environmental education classes geared for children.

"What I love about the nature centers and the work that we do here is the impact we have on youth," he says. "Kids have come back and said, 'I remember going on that hike with you,' 'I remember playing in the creek.' Those are the kinds of moments that make it worthwhile for me."

Bear Creek Nature Center, Colorado's first of its kind, was founded in the city's southwest foothills in 1976, so Marts and his staff often meet visitors from the early years returning with their children and even grandchildren. The 42-year-old has worked for the county a little more than 15 years and stepped up to manage Bear Creek in 2007, after his supervisor retired.

He's seen the center survive its worst time, when a mentally ill man set fire to the original building on an early morning in May 2000. But as a glass-half-full kind of guy, Marts doesn't fixate on the feelings he had when he and his colleagues arrived at the blazing building: "It was a horrible morning," he says, "but the fruits of that have been enormous."

A few months after the fire (for which the arsonist received jail time), local voters approved bypassing the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights to allow the county to retain surplus revenue, seed money for the $1-million-plus new structure and exhibits.

"That was a unique thing, and it says a lot for the voters, that they saw the value of the nature center and wanted to give that back," Marts says.

Nowadays, the public shows its support with a core of 60 volunteers who total 6,000 hours per year at Bear Creek and at Fountain Creek, which opened in 1992 between Widefield and Fountain. Together, the centers have welcomed more than 2 million visitors to programs and special events.

The Friends of El Paso County Nature Centers, the nonprofit that handles fundraising and volunteers, has been around for a couple of decades, Marts says. After recent budget cuts and layoffs, the group's work has become even more crucial to the centers' survival.

"The dollar value on that is enormous," Marts says. "The volunteers have a real passion for what they're doing here. They make that connection with the kids, and that's what I'm most proud of — the quality of service we provide to these kids. The staff and volunteers are what make us unique."

Marts supervises one full-time staffer and one part-timer at each nature center, paid through the county's general fund. Those people are augmented by seasonal employees, with numbers depending on the season and finances.

This is the centers' first time participating in the Give! campaign, and Marts says it's already paying off via connections to other nonprofits. Bear Creek Nature Center will team with the Ellicott Wildlife Rehabilitation & Education Center, the Children's Literacy Center and members of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic — Give! participants all — for the "Bear Creek by Candlelight" fundraiser Dec. 3.

The latter two may seem like unusual partners for a nature center, but Marts says people who love nature tend to love music, and families who love nature are interested in literacy. Visitors can walk trails lined with small lanterns, then return to the nature center to eat Texas Roadhouse chili and drink hot chocolate; view animals from the Ellicott facility; listen to music; dress up like Dr. Seuss characters; and create nature-inspired memory books. And, of course, guests can donate to the centers' mission.

"Parks and nature centers help us give that quality of life. I think it's everybody's responsibility to help provide those things," Marts says. "Even for people who may not have come to the nature center or one of the parks, it's a quality-of-life issue that helps everyone."

They're not just places to breathe fresh air and see wildlife — they're investments in future generations.

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