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History of the Environmental Learning Center

The Environmental Learning Center (ELC) entered a new phase with the completion of its restoration in 2018, but we recognize that this place would not exist at all without the innovative leaders and the power of community that turned an abandoned industrial site into a natural area that brings many benefits to the environment.

Concurrent with planning for the restoration, CCC undertook an extensive community engagement initiative - the Environmental Learning Center Historical Preservation Project - in order to capture the fascinating stories that have led us to where we are today. Community members, students, faculty and staff were invited to share memories, hopes and dreams for the future of the site. Following is a summary of what was learned.

ELC Historical Preservation Project

The college and the ELC have shared a long history. The relationship, while sometimes rocky, was shaped around a vision of environmental learning and stewardship.

The Visionaries

In his memoir "Transforming Lives," CCC past president emeritus John Keyser wrote, "The ELC developed early in the college's history under the leadership of President John Hakanson, as a response to intense community interest in developing new strategies for living in harmony with nature."

The ELC has a rich history as an educational resource for the college, regional schools, industry and the community. Located on the site of a former Smucker's processing plant, the ELC was created to demonstrate what people could do to reclaim industrial sites, address storm water issues and restore wildlife habitat in urban areas.

The idea of creating the ELC gained momentum in 1973, when a group of students under the leadership of art instructor Leland John formed a committee and drafted a plan. "At the ELC, art, community and the environment came together in a singularly unique way, celebrating all three because people were willing to work together for the benefit of their creation," ELC founder Jerry Herrmann said.

Herrmann had the uncanny ability to recruit volunteers and talent to the ELC. One of his more infamous efforts was recruiting the Oregon National Guard to excavate the site, transforming it into what we know today as the "ecology ponds." Herrmann always dreamed big when it came to the ELC. In 1977 he hired Nan Hage to design the center's first pavilion. Hage designed the building to enhance the environment. It was built in 1981 and cost a mere $10,000. Being astute recyclers, Herrmann and Hage got many of the materials donated. All of the cabinets and flooring are Malaysian mahogany. The boards are ballast from the bottom of ships.

Recycling became a driving force for the visionaries. Herrmann developed a recycling depot at the ELC for the community. It soon became a full-service recycling center, putting the ELC on the map. In fact, it was one of the most successful recycling depots in the state at that time, handling up to 100 tons of material a year.

Stories were also recycled at the ELC. In 1984, storyteller Dean "Hawk" Edwards worked alongside volunteer coordinator Leslie Rapacki to develop and care for Hawk Haven, also known as the birds of prey exhibit.

"The goal was to create an educational wildlife habitat on an industrial site. In essence, to recycle the industrial site itself," Hage said. Clearly they did that, and then some.

In 1987, Lakeside Educational Hall was completed, providing a place for the community to gather and take classes. "Eighty percent of the construction material in this facility was simulated wood made from recycled plastics," Keyser said. The lighting was recycled from marijuana grow lights donated by local law enforcement officers.

The next visionary to land on the scene was astronomer and scientist Ken Cameron. It was his connections that led to the Haggart family dome donation to the ELC. The Haggart Observatory, as it is now known, opened March 7, 1989, so the community could view the partial eclipse of the sun occurring that day.

The Guardians

As recycling revenue began to decline in the 1990s and CCC subsidies dwindled, the ELC suffered setbacks which strained its relationship with the college. The ELC was in need of a new champion. After a number of interim executive directors, Keyser, who was then president, stepped forward to put the ELC back on track by providing several years of stable funding and critical infrastructure updates. This investment attracted environmental educator John LeCavalier, who was hired to reactivate the ELC.

LaCavalier's leadership was instrumental in attracting like-minded partners, like Larry Beutler of Clearing Magazine, to the ELC. His contributions also include developing new programs and initiatives. He further established an endowment for the ELC that would keep it resuscitated for many years to come.

LaCavalier believes the ELC has a life of its own. During his interview he noted, "There is nothing to indicate that the tenacity of this physical place at the headwaters of Newell Creek and the people that have been involved it will not continue well into the future."

When LeCavalier departed due to budget cuts in 2006, Alison Heimowitz took over as the ELC's education coordinator. Even as a part-time instructor, Heimowitz developed critical environmental educational partnerships that are still in place today. Together, these partnerships bring hundreds of children to the site each year to learn in an outdoor living laboratory. Heimowitz was also the spark plug behind the writing and designing of the Metro Nature in Neighborhood Capital Grant, which was approved by the Board of Education in 2013. The CCC Foundation Board of Directors also stepped forward to support the grant by committing to raise the critical match to make the grant possible.

The Future

The Newell Creek Headwaters Restoration and Education Project brings together a range of public agencies, conservation groups and community members to engage in a collaborative impact initiative. This project brings to life the best of what the ELC has been and provides hope for what it still can be. After hundreds of hours of conversation with the multitude of community members who consider themselves friends of the ELC, the relevancy of this place and what it has to offer is as important today as it ever was.

When asked about the relevancy of the ELC's future, the retired U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley said quite simply, "Environmental learning never goes out of style."

Community engagement

ELC interviews, fall 2015-winter 2016

In 2015, the College worked in partnership with community co-chairs Jerry Herrmann and Sha Spady to secure a slice of the ELC's rich history by inviting champions to help it understand the best of the ELC's past and present, while envisioning the best of what still could be. The information gathered throughout this process will help CCC preserve the history of the ELC for the enrichment of future generations.

Over a six month period approximately 40 friends of the ELC were interviewed as part of ELC Historical Preservation process led by past College Relations and Marketing Associate Vice President Shelly Parini. Dr. Jackie Flowers generously offered to provide insight on how to best preserve these stories for future generations.

ELC Workshop; Open House; Birthday Party

On March 12, 2016 the College held a workshop for the Historical Preservation participants to present the recommendations discovered during the interview process. At the workshop they reported on discoveries, shared stories and took a long hard look at the relevancy of the ELC in the context of the future.

The workshop's primary outcome was to identify ways to embed the historical elements and best memories of the ELC into the Headwaters of Newell Creek revitalization efforts. The group came up with a number of bold recommendations. Those recommendations, in conjunction with suggestions made during the interview process, were presented at a series of community open houses culminating at the college's 50th birthday party on May 21, 2016.

Community recommendations for the future of ELC:

  • Interpretive signage: environmental education (critter and plant identification)
  • Native American heritage recognition (art and stone)
  • ELC history signage (site and facilities)
  • Cultural inclusion: art and sculptures
  • Native plant garden
  • Service learning: youth and community
  • Environmental education: youth, college, adults
  • Environmental tourism
  • Passive recreation
  • Preservation: maintenance endowment
  • Giving tree (donor recognition)
  • College connections: walking, learning, partnering
  • Headwaters heritage forest
  • Discovery classes

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