Spending a chunk of his life running a nature center in Suffolk County taught biologist and educator Eric Powers a lot about the business.
Above all, the traditional nature center model is not sustainable.
“People just don’t seem to value nature education,” he said. “So the most I’ve seen programs charge is $5 or $10 per person. And you just can’t operate a center off that without being propped up with big money behind you.”
And what happens if that money dries up?
Through the Center for Environmental Education & Discovery, or CEED, planned for the Washington Lodge on South Country Road in Brookhaven, Powers and his team are looking to turn the old models upside down.
That starts by offering amazing products people are willing to pay a few bucks for.
“So we’re really raising the bar on our programs,” said Powers.
Those programs will range from beekeeping classes to wilderness survival training.
“This needs to be nature center 2.0,” he said.
A longer term goal is to operate a full-fledged nature retreat using the lodge’s many second- and third-story bedrooms.
One huge benefit of running the CEED center in the historic lodge is it would be rent-free.
The Brookhaven Town Board this month approved a license agreement to let the nonprofit Art & Nature Group Inc., which Powers co-founded, operate CEED out of the historic building in return for improving it and being stewards of the land.
The Washington Lodge has been empty since its longtime owners, the Marist Brothers stopped using it as a retreat in 2010, Powers said.
A housing development was being planned.
But the building and the land surrounding it, nearly 10 acres in all, was preserved through a joint effort of the town, county and Post-Morrow Foundation, a Brookhaven conservation and preservation group.
The lodge is named for a former owner, George Constant Louis Washington, famous for inventing a form of instant coffee that was later sold around the world.
Washington split time between Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the 18-bedroom country home that was then the centerpiece of a 40-acre waterfront estate that boasted New York’s largest concrete swimming pool at the time, according to the Images of America book Bellport Village & Brookhaven Hamlet by local historian Victor Principe.
Remnants of the concrete pool can still be found in the woods behind the lodge.
“We knew that there was such a rich history and a culture behind it,” said Brookhaven Councilman Michael Loguercio. “We said, we can do a lot with [the Washington Lodge] but the town doesn’t have the manpower or the resources to staff it full-time. Then there were these people willing to do it, who are experts in the field.”
Those people also include Rebecca Muellers.
She and Powers have been a driving force behind getting the center up and running.
“There are other nature centers around, but we can do it in a better way,” Muellers said. “And we think there’s a need and a demand thats not being met right now.
“And we would be the first nature retreat center on Long Island,” Powers added.
much work ahead
The rebirth of the Washington Lodge, which is at least 100 years old, would happen in three phases.
Phase one would be to replace the infrastructure — both damaged and stolen. Then, build two handicapped bathrooms and clean up the large meeting spaces in the building’s first floors. From there, the rest of the house would be locked off.
“At that point, as far as we’re concerned, we can open our doors,” Muellers said.
The second phase would include, among other items, getting the commercial kitchen up and running, creating a caretaker’s living space and establishing offices on the second floor.
The third phase would be to finish the second and third floor bedrooms and baths.
The CEED team, which includes other volunteers, also plans to establish an environmental library.
The reference library would highlight the area’s rich environmental and historic preservation accomplishments. Those include, among others, the 40-acre Dennis Puleston Nature Preserve that’s across the street.
Dennis Puleston was a Brookhaven resident best known for getting the use of the insecticide DDT banned in the United States — a move that’s credited with saving the osprey from extinction.
Puleston also co-founded the now-global Environmental Defense Fund.
Meanwhile, Legislator Kate Browning says the county would be willing to fund and oversee the installation of one of its newly approved denitrification septic systems on the property.
That would save big money for Art & Nature Group Inc, but also serve as an educational tool, she said.
“There are grants available to allow them to install this system,” Browning said. “It’s in the Beaverdam Creek Watershed, so it’s the perfect location for one. And at the same time it will serve to educate visitors and the public about the nitrogen and how it harms our waterways.”
The effort to get the building up and running is going to come through fundraising, donated time and materials, and generating revenues through programming.
the survival program
In addition to working professionally in marketing and public relations, Muellers is a certified wilderness skills instructor through an organization called Primitive Pursuits, which is based at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in upstate Ithaca.
Primitive Pursuits is a program for kids and adults, with an emphasis on kids, that offers nature immersion education through the use of primitive skills and technologies.
And there’s nothing like it on Long Island.
“It’s survival stuff, but with a very Native American edge to it,” Muellers said.
The program teaches skills like:
- fire by friction
- crafting primitive tools
- natural navigation
- hunting for wild edibles
“Even things like storytelling; back to those Native American roots,” she said. “I fell in love with the program but it’s only in Ithaca. So I wanted to bring it to Long Island.”
With the backing of the Cornell, she began by introducing small-scale programming in Huntington that would quickly sell out. Then there were waiting lists.
“I knew I really needed a home for this,” she said. “I met Eric and we discussed his nature center idea, and I jumped on the bandwagon. I will make this happen and then this will be home for Primitive Pursuits.
“So that’s going to be a key part of the programming as well.”
Top photo: Rebecca Muellers and Eric Powers at the Washington Lodge off South Country Road last Monday. (Credit: Michael White)