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A Showcase for O.C.'s Retreating Outdoors

An expanded nature center at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park reopens, providing a glimpse of the region's wildlife and culture.

June 22, 2003|Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writer

For more than two years, Ranger John Gannaway has been planning a party that the guest of honor is expected to flee at first opportunity.

To mark the reopening of the nature center at the Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park today, Gannaway, the park's head ranger, will release a once-injured -- but now healthy -- hawk back into the wild.

Gannaway said he won't take offense if the creature leaves the celebration a little early. "No, he will be returning to where he should be; he's going back where he belongs," he said.

The park's nature center has been closed for renovations since fall 1999.

On hand for the reopening ceremony will be Tom Wilson, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

"There's more to life than asphalt and cement," said Wilson, whose South County district includes the 8,000-acre Caspers park. "It's going to be an enhanced nature center, and an opportunity to showcase the outdoors."

The facility has been enlarged from 800 to 1,800 square feet at a cost of roughly $140,000, Gannaway said. Additions include exhibits, featuring stuffed wildlife common to the region, as well as murals depicting panoramic views of the park.

Visitors will be able to push buttons beneath the wildlife displays and hear the yelping of coyotes, for example, or the high-pitched croak of the arroyo toad. There is also an example of the dusky-foot wood rat's twig-and-branch home, which small children will be able to explore.

With Orange County's increasing sprawl, Gannaway said, the nature center may be one of the few remaining local places where children and their parents can glimpse a roadrunner or an American badger.

"With development encroaching on open spaces, large animals like mule deer and mountain lions have less area to live," he said. "There are only 20 to 40 mountain lions left in the Santa Ana Mountains," he said. Caspers sits in the foothills of the mountain range.

In another room at the center, there will be a display of the baskets and various tools used by the area's native inhabitants, the Juaneno Indians. Juaneno descendants assisted park officials with the display, Gannaway said.

"I think both kids and adults will be pleasantly surprised," he said.

The importance of the new nature center and Caspers should not be underestimated, Wilson said.

"I think it's just great for people to have that freedom, to walk through the trails, walk through the fields," Wilson said. "It's a pristine area, a place that gives people a feeling of, I'll say, peace."

The nature center will be open Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There is a fee for entrance to the park, but admittance to the center is free.

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