A lot is happening at the beach near the Nisqually estuary. Monitoring the biological activity, conserving the environment and cultivating the next generation of scientists and nature enthusiasts propels the Nisqually Reach Nature Center’s year-round activity. The center is located at Luhr Beach on the western edge of the Nisqually delta, a rendezvous point for the marine life above and below the water. Citizens and staff engage in community science where McAlister Creek and the Nisqually River both meet the saltwater. The site has long been a focal point in the area’s history. Before the center received its nonprofit status in 1986, the building was home to the Black Hills Audubon Society. Bill Lurh had his hunting and fishing camp there by the water. It is also the ancestral home of the Nisqually Tribe. Today, factions of all entities are still involved.
“As soon as people walk in the doors, they feel a connection,” says Shannon Boldt, Nisqually Reach Nature Center board member and science volunteer. “We have these really big windows and fish tanks. You might see blue herons or 20 eagles outside catching fish on the low tide. It’s like nature TV.”
Community science and environmental education make up the primary focus of the center where studying life in the estuary happens throughout the year. Programs such as beach seining, shore crab and benthic invertebrate surveys involve participants by having them collect different specimens from the low tide mud or in nets from the water. After collection, they return to the center to identify what they found.
Pigeon guillemot and forage fish surveys are conducted at different beaches throughout the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve. Forage fish, such as herrings and anchovies, are species indicators, which means their populations reveal much about the other marine life above and below them on the food chain. Volunteers help collect and view sand samples under the microscope that may reveal their tiny eggs. The pigeon guillemot, a bird species that indicates possible environmental conditions, is studied on a varied, year-round schedule. The data collected is then shared with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Whether the survey is of crabs, fish or birds, volunteers are the backbone of these studies, and positions are sought after by college students, retirees with backgrounds in biology, and families that want to go out and learn together.
Scientific study, education and subsequent appreciation play out through these experiences. The center provides the platform in which that can happen. What then results is a symbiotic relationship in which the environment and the public benefit each other, and that is wonderful because active community science is at the heart of the center’s goal. “It’s not so much the research itself but the people,” says Nisqually Reach Nature Center Science Director Terence Lee. “That is the hallmark of community science: using science as a tool to connect people with nature. You can’t really care about it if you don’t know about it, and you can’t know about it if someone doesn’t teach you. One way people can become stewards of the environment is by being involved in these programs.”
In addition to individual volunteers and interns, families and school classes are welcomed to participate in field trips, summer camps and the surveys. April Roe, education coordinator at the Nisqually Reach Nature Center, created an estuary curriculum in collaboration with the Nisqually River Education Project and Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. “Exploring the Nisqually Watershed” is an interactive, online program that is used as part of summer camp and field trip activities. Serving students from Joint Base Lewis McCord, the Nisqually Tribe and the surrounding region, kids get to know the exciting life in the estuary and its vital role in nature’s big picture.
Summer camps are all about having fun with science through educational games, fun activities, field trips and of course some time to explore the beach. Overall, kids can learn what lives within depends upon the estuary and how they themselves are part of its conservation. During COVID-19 closures, Roe made family science field kits with similar activities available to keep people and marine life interacting.
Each year, staff and volunteers gather for their biggest event, a fundraising dinner and auction. Neighbors, donors, friends and even boat captains turn out for the good time.
“Conservation is what we are trying to do through community science and education,” says NRNC Executive Director Daniel Hull. “We’re connecting people to Puget Sound.” And that they do. Everyone involved, from school kids to volunteers to the directors, everyone expresses a dedication to learning, sharing and conserving the space. To learn more about the summer camp and education programs, research and learning, visit the Nisqually Reach Nature Center website, Facebook and Instagram.