Emily Oaks Nature Center Manager Lee Hansen won the Illinois Park and Recreation Association’s ‘2012 Excellence in Environmental Leadership Award’ at the organization’s annual conference in Chicago today.
“Lee has truly become an environmental icon throughout the state,” said Skokie Park District Executive Director Mark Schneiderman. “She has built an amazing legacy by developing quality earth education programs through her stewardship of the land and her groundbreaking efforts toward greener living.”
Since 1988, the cornerstone of the Skokie Park District’s (and Lee Hansen’s) environmental efforts have been based at the Emily Oaks Nature Center, a 13-acre preserve dedicated to “building relationships with the natural world.” In addressing her first goal – to preserve, restore and protect ecological systems naturally occurring…and the communities of plant and animal life indigenous to the area – staff adhere to Lee’s detailed management plan, guiding the restoration of the savanna and pond. Volunteers and students, recruited and directed by Lee, are involved in brush cutting and wildflower gardening, contributing more than 400 hours annually. Due to Lee’s management practices, the Center has doubled the native plants species living on site. Lee has also has made the Center a member of ‘Chicago Wilderness,’ a 160-member coalition of organizations working to protect, restore, study and manage the ecosystems of the Chicago region.
Lee’s second Nature Center goal -- to enhance citizen enjoyment and understanding of natural areas by providing innovative education, interpretation and recreation programming – is met by offering a diversity of program opportunities for all ages. In 1988, Lee created a Skokie Earth Day Celebration, focused on how food choices affect the earth. Her local school activities teach students basic ecological concepts. These activities continue to grow, with nearly 4,000 Skokie area students participating in activities such as the innovative three-day Earthkeepers program. Families attend campfire programs such as ‘Coyote Awakenings Around the Fire,’ and adults are encouraged to explore the local landscape on canoe trips and natural history tours (most guided by Lee) like an excursion to view migrating Sandhill Cranes. In 2004, Lee directed the completion of the interactive exhibit called the Woodland Wander Inn. This Illinois Department of Natural Resources-supported project shares discovery skills and fun facts about nature and ways of transferring those skills outdoors.
Lee and her Environmental Action Team direct the ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ Program throughout the district’s facilities and in all district programs. With Lee’s urging, all buildings have been designed for energy efficiency, including computerized HVAC systems, paperless sink areas, high-efficiency light fixtures, and the use of electronic mail and digital file storage. Lee has also been successful in the district’s use of alternatives to pesticides and recycling of oil and antifreeze. The district also participates in the Clean Fuel Fleet Program, exceeding EPA mandates for low emission vehicles. It also recycles 99 percent of all landscape waste, follows best practices in water conservation, and has planted native plants such as prairie grass around facilities in order to save water.
When she started at Emily Oaks in 1988, it was Lee’s belief that a traditional scientific approach to the Nature Center’s programming needed to be bolstered by emotional connections, especially among children. To that end, Lee became involved in meetings of the Institute for Earth Education, alongside Steve Van Matre, founder of earth education. (IEE currently has participating institutions throughout the United States and around the world, including Canada, Great Britain, Japan, Australia, and Italy.)
Over the next twenty years, Lee created dozens of earth education programs like ‘Nature Fun & Frolic,” based on a wide range of education models and created by Lee, her staff and even her family.
Twenty-three years after her arrival, Lee continues to make educational programs the priority at Emily Oaks Nature Center. In spite of her growing number of staff and administrative responsibilities, Lee still finds time to lead interpretive trips for adults and listens to sounds of the woodland with a visiting class of kindergarteners.
The latest testament to Lee’s dedication to green living is Skokie’s Spring Greening Community Expo. The event attracted more than 1,000 people over six hours in 2011, educating residents through the use of 40 Expo booths and 20 workshops. It entertained with hourly musical acts, film documentaries and a green fashion show, and provided reuse and recycling for nearly 400 cars at a 20-station drive-up/drop-off site. Because of Lee and the hundreds of volunteers who were motivated by her, the event was a stunning success in 2011, shining a needed bright light on the wide range of Skokie’s green initiatives. The Expo is now in the long range plan to repeat as a major Skokie Park District event for years to come.