Departing director St. Clair reflects on 35 years at Fridley nature center

  • Article by: KELLY JO MCDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2013 - 4:17 PM

Siah St. Clair is virtually synonymous with the Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley. In April, he’ll be retiring.

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Siah St. Clair: “A place like Springbrook brings out people who feel passionately about this place.”

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The job description of a nature center director isn’t an easy one. Duties can range from conducting classes with third-graders on aquatic invertebrates to repairing a plank on the boardwalk. From speaking at a Rotary club and writing grant requests to repairing a broken toilet.

No one understands the complexity of the position better than Siah St. Clair, who’s done those things and more during his 35 years at the Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley. He will be retiring as director in April.

He reflected on his experiences in a Q and A session last week.

 

Q: What changes have you seen through the years?

A: Technology. When I started, there was only one typewriter in the whole place, and it was the secretary’s typewriter. I would dictate, and she would type the letters. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Recently I was leading a hike on birds and pointed out a robin’s call. Thirty seconds later, we heard another robin call behind me, but it’s someone’s bird app on their phone, and they were playing the robin’s song on their phone. Everyone was listening to the app [thinking it was the real thing]. That’s a change.

But a lot of things have really stayed the same, like leading a hike on birds. People are still just as fascinated with birds today as they were 40 years ago. Or learning about wildflowers or prairie habitats. The part where you actually have people outdoors, identifying a mushroom, or a tree … all of that is the same.

 

Q: What about challenges — then and now?

A: The challenges have stayed the same. The challenge is always finding enough resources to accomplish your needs. We’re constantly increasing our ability to find resources. So we’re writing grant proposals, figuring out improved ways to bring revenue into the center to pay for materials we need. I think we’ve gotten better at it over the years, bringing in more revenue and finding more resources than we did 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.

Other challenges are also the same: how you maintain the prairie; storage for props used for classes that we teach; finding part-time and full-time naturalists — those kinds of challenges continue. You get more resourceful because of your experience. Or maybe you’re not as intimidated, as you’ve done it so many times.

 

Q: What is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?

A: I can think of three people who were full-time naturalists [at Springbrook] who went on to become directors of their own nature centers. I think that’s a good feeling; you’ve worked with people and had them able to move on into a position where they are now directing a nature center of their own.

Also, over the years, the use of the center has increased tremendously, way beyond what anyone had ever dreamed, and it’s part of my job to try to plan for how we’re going to address that increase in use. We’ve met with the Springbrook Nature Center Foundation and community groups and a plan was developed: Improve the outdoor classroom in the front of the park, and create space inside the building.

We’ve gone to the Legislature and requested bonding funds, and we’ve made it through three times. We made it to the governor’s desk three times. We were vetoed three times, but that was a big accomplishment to just get there. We’re working at it again this year.

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