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Chuck Frederick column: Keep outdoor ed program at Hartley

Then 6 years old, Sophie Miner leads a group of home-schooled students across a bridge during a nature walk at Hartley in February 2009. Such walks could become a thing of the past for some 600 Duluth-area students if leaders of a nature-immersion education program scrap the initiative over concerns about proposed changes to Hartley. (File / News Tribune)

Everything changes when they get outside, out in nature. Children unruly in the classroom find focus. Students missed by traditional teaching suddenly are engaged. And everyone’s learning improves.

Research proves it.

And teachers, principals, parents and others from four Duluth-area schools have been seeing it again and again over the past two years via a groundbreaking nonprofit program called Gender Matters. The program recognizes that boys and girls learn differently — and that they all learn more and better when their hands are picking up bugs and the sun is on their backs.

“The kids love when we have a Hartley day,” St. James Catholic School first-grade teacher Barbara Mollison told me, referring to Hartley Nature Center, which connects monthly with 600 kindergarteners, first-graders and second-graders who are participating in the program and who attend St. James, St. John’s, St. Michael’s Lakeside and Hermantown Elementary. My own now-nature-loving daughter is in Mollison’s class.

“If we go outside they insist on journaling when we come back,” Mollison said, offering just one example of the program’s many positive tangible effects. “Because of that I see their writing skills improve so much faster than I would otherwise. … They’re motivated because of what they do outside. It really has opened their eyes to things — and my eyes to things.”

As great and beneficial as the program is, its future, unfortunately, is in jeopardy. The city of Duluth is looking at making some changes at Hartley, changes that Gender Matters officials insist will drive away wildlife and destroy the nature in the nature center. Their fears and concerns are debatable, but their threat is very real to pull the plug on a program that ought to be expanded, not scrapped.

“What’s happening now when (the children) go out there, they become a part of everything. They see where a buck has rubbed its velvet off of its horns. They see scat. They see birds out there. They hear birds. They see things that are there only because people are not there. They will destroy that,” Gender Matters founder and major funder Dan Mundt said of plans to improve trails and accessibility at Hartley, among other enhancements. “We are not going to be there (if renovations are made). I am not going to pay for something that is false. You have to have nature in the raw for the students. … If you take (Hartley) and make it a recreational park it’s worthless to us.”

No, Mundt and others with the program can’t say for sure wildlife would leave if hiking, mountain biking and other human activity increases in the park. But, they’re quick to argue, city leaders and nature center officials can’t guarantee critters would remain, either.

“They have not studied it. They don’t know,” said Gender Matters supporter Jim Balmer, a well-known Duluth lawyer. “For (a proposal) this mammoth, and if their stated purpose is to keep the nature and natural character of this park, they’d better know.”

“A fear of mine,” added Jon Ohman, a Gender Matters supporter whose Rotary club built docks, boardwalks and kiosks at Hartley, “is that we build a perfectly great recreational park and then the education will be diminished. Are we going to have teachers showing pictures of animal tracks instead of the kids seeing them firsthand in the mud?”

With respect to such concerns, wildlife remains abundant in Hartley — and that’s despite the development of trails, bridges and other man-made features over many years. Plus, a creek was dammed to create a pond, and a nature center building was constructed. It seems reasonable to expect wildlife to continue to be abundant even if the pond is enhanced, mountain biking continues and some surfaces are hardened (but still natural) so they’re accessible to people with handicaps and in wheelchairs. Duluth’s parks, like other public spaces, should be accessible to all.

“The park is 660 acres, and animals are very adaptive to us being around. No, I don’t think you’re going to drive all the animals out of here,” Hartley Nature Center Executive Director Tom O’Rourke said. “What we do is environmental education in the park. That’s contingent on the park having a lot of nature and animals having habitat. We’ll still have that.”

O’Rourke and Jim Filby Williams, the director of public administration for the city of Duluth, admit that the original plans to enhance Hartley were over the top and far too focused on recreational opportunities at the expense of the nature already there. But the plans have been updated at least twice since November and are now far less intrusive and far more acceptable. An even better plan, rewritten in response to public concerns like those above, is to be posted this week at the city of Duluth’s website (go to and click on “Hartley Master Plan”). The Duluth Parks Commission will consider the latest plan, and hear again from the public, when it meets May 14.

“The latest plans … align with the park as a nature center first,” O’Rourke said. “We haven’t always agreed with all parts of the plan, but we do like that the focus has shifted in the favor of nature. I feel like we’re getting there. … I think there’s a reasonable path forward.”

Williams agrees. You can read his comments elsewhere in this section. So does the Izaak Walton League of America, which also was vehemently opposed to changes for Hartley — at first.

“I think the city is listening,” said David Zentner of Duluth, the former national president of the Izaak Walton League. “Everything should flow from the fact that this is a nature center first. That’s its main theme. The city acknowledges you can’t do all things in all places. There are lots of other places in the city where the emphasis can be on recreation.”

With a continued emphasis on nature first, Hartley can continue to be used by hikers, mountain bikers and others while also continuing to offer great outdoors education. And not just to students and schools participating in Gender Matters. An estimated 14,000 schoolchildren a year visit Hartley or benefit from its educational outreach. There seems to be wide agreement that uses and users can coexist — even with improvements made.

Mundt and others with Gender Matters are alone, it seems, in deciding enhancements will spell doom. They seem to have made up their mind, and that’s too bad. They also seem prepared to take their $25,000 to $30,000 a year “for education of the children (we) cannot get anyplace else” and go home, and that’s really too bad. I hope they reconsider, reserving final judgment at least until final plans are revealed. They could even continue on and then reevaluate after changes are made to see if their fears materialize. Or they could work more closely with the city and nature center now to make sure nothing is destroyed.

Ending their program in protest at this point would be a mistake. Hundreds of Duluth-area schoolchildren, including my daughter, would be the ones left to pay the price.

Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune’s editorial page editor. Contact him at (218) 723-5316 or at