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El Dorado Nature Center’s Volunteer of More than 33 Years Takes us Through the Serenities of the Regional Park

Published: 11/1/2019

The hundred-acre parcel of park land known and loved over the last 50 years as the El Dorado Nature Center has provided solace and serenity for countless thousands of visitors. Its clever layout and diverse habitats, maintained beautifully by a small army of employees and volunteers, serve as homes to a surprising variety of flora and fauna, including many California native plants. A natural jewel in the middle of the city, the Nature Center attracts 375,000 visitors a year.

InsideLB was fortunate to get the Nature Center grand tour from Mr. Steven Witt, who
estimates that he has volunteered three to four hundred hours of his time to the Nature Center every year for the last 33 years.

We meet Witt and Nature Center Community Services Supervisor Meaghan O'Neill on the porch of the Visitor’s Center, which is situated on an island overlooking the Center's north lake, where a Great Blue Heron sits majestically among the Cattails.

"My favorite things in life are mountains, trees and fresh, running water. This is as close as I can get and still be close to my house, which is half a mile away," says Witt.

Over the course of his 33 years volunteering at the Nature Center, Witt has done a little bit of everything, from night walks to helping in the classroom with the kids to clearing the trails to locking the bathrooms at night.  

He has seen the addition of the spacious new entrance, which features a concrete amphitheater surrounded by rustic benches, and he was there to watch the Center's original wooden bridges replaced by metal ones that were helicoptered and craned into place.  

"Steve is one of our most dedicated volunteers," says O’Neill. "He's here every single day. I don't know what we would do without him."  

As we begin our Nature Center stroll, Witt leads the way. We're on a newly paved stretch of trail known as The Quarter Mile. Equipped with a railing, this section of trail is accessible for all modalities.

Soon, we're in a fragrant grove of White Sage, Bladderpod, Bush Sunflower, and California Buckwheat. This is the one place in the Nature Center where plant-touching is encouraged, in order to fully enjoy their heady aromas. We're serenaded by some of the 175 species of birds who either live in or migrate to the Center.

The foliage is particularly rich after a full winter of rain. We emerge into the
sunlight and walk under a brilliant gold arch of Flannel Bush Flowers. Swallowtail butterflies dance around us.

Witt leads us into a forest of 40-foot-tall Live Oak trees, with gnarled, intricate trunks. The air is significantly cooler in here. We're in a completely different habitat now, one of several within the Nature Center. We hear the white noise of the 605 Freeway, which blends nicely with the sound of the wind in the trees. According to Witt, visiting students often think the sound of the freeway is a rushing river.

We enter an employee-only area under the massive Edison power lines that run next to the San Gabriel River. As we walk down the wide service road known as "Electric Avenue," we are reminded that we are in the midst of an urban environment.

"This is actually a great way to show people that 'urban' and 'nature' can co-exist," says O’Neill.

We head back to the trail through fields of brilliant orange California Poppies and wild Yellow Mustard. Soon we're walking next to the meandering stream that connects the north and south lakes. The water runs from the north to the south lake and is then pumped back up to the north lake.

As we walk through a sunny meadow of California Blackberries, Steven reflects on how the Nature Center has benefited his life.

"Sometimes in the old days I'd be really worried about something when I walked over from my house," says Witt. "I'd do the two-mile trail a couple of times, look at all the beautiful trees and plants and everything else, and by the time I was done I'd forgotten all my problems."

We're walking on the original trails cut by the first park naturalist and park director with a lawn mower, back when this area was farm land. Ingeniously laid out, the trails take a guest through a variety of looks and atmospheres, creating the sensation of escape.

Witt shifts gears and goes into brisk mode, leaning into the stroll with a purposeful gait, clearing the trail of twigs with his walking stick. Soon, we're at the south lake. On cue, a Canada Goose comes in for a landing, its honk reverberating across the lake, evoking a feeling one can't get while negotiating the city streets.

Witt points out the log amphitheater learning centers, some of them set back deep in the forest. There are also benches set up near the shores of the lakes and in other inspiring locations throughout the Center. 

Back on the trail, we're headed uphill in the midst of a Pine forest, feeling very much like we're in the mountains. Witt reminds some late strollers that the Center will be closing soon. He guides us back to the Visitor's Center, where we cross a bridge and get a good look at the famous Nature Center turtles, who are enjoying the sun on their own little barges.  

As we thank Witt and O’Neill and part ways, Witt is asked to give a 50th anniversary invitation to prospective visitors.

"It's just a beautiful place to take a nice little walk and clear your mind," he says. "If you want to come to paradise, come to the El Dorado Nature Center."  

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