It's been almost 10 years since John Flicker coasted down Orcas Street and, spying the treetops of Seward Park thrusting skyward like the...

It’s been almost 10 years since John Flicker coasted down Orcas Street and, spying the treetops of Seward Park thrusting skyward like the spires of a forest cathedral, declared: “This is where we should be.”

The president of the National Audubon Society was traveling the country looking for places to build urban nature centers, and Seward Park fit his notions exactly. The 277-acre forested peninsula is crisscrossed with trails — some of them winding through one of Seattle’s largest remaining stands of old-growth trees, and its southern reaches cradle the city’s only remaining population of native Garry oaks. Joggers and bicyclists enjoy Lake Washington lapping near their toes, while summer brings boaters and swimmers splashing to sandy shores.

Add the park’s location in Southeast Seattle, an area underserved in nature programming, throw in an easy-access historic building, and Flicker’s vision took flight.

In partnership with Seattle’s parks department, the National Audubon Society will celebrate the grand opening of the Seward Park Environmental and Audubon Center this weekend as a hub for nature study and stewardship, citizen science and environmentally focused art.

“It’s all about habitat”

The center’s diverse list of public offerings includes a 2,000 volume-strong lending library of nature books and field guides, computer stations and a laboratory, monthly art shows, environmentally themed lectures (“Your Big Natural Backyard” addresses healthful yard-and-garden practices), nature programs and hikes for all ages, summer movies and “Super Saturdays” — where games, arts and crafts, puzzles and workshops aid visitors in solving nature mysteries.

“We hope to become a place where urban kids can come and be introduced to the outdoors — a place that feels safe, interesting, exciting and fun,” said Gail Gatton, the center’s director, a longtime Seward Park neighbor who laments the fact that children today aren’t as free to roam the outdoors.

“Southeast Seattle is the most diverse part of the city — where something like 70 different languages are spoken — and we didn’t have an environmental learning center there,” said Sheila Brown, city liaison to the Seward center and education program supervisor for Seattle Parks and Recreation. “A huge reason for having this partnership is that both organizations wanted to provide environmental programming in an underserved area.”

The center occupies a painstakingly refurbished, historic landmark-status 1927 Tudor building, originally built as a park concession stand and residence by architect Alban Shay. In the upstairs classroom, Arts-and-Crafts styled fireplace tiles reflect in shiny original red oak floors. In keeping with the groups’ environmental mission, “green” building materials were used in new parts of the structure. Education Director Annie Morton’s pride and joy, the citizen-science laboratory, is a well-stocked lake-view room lined with counters and stools awaiting young scientists. (Preschool children and high-school students are the center’s educational targets.)

“Because we’re Audubon, people think it’s all birds, but our programs as a whole focus on freshwater and forest ecology,” said Gatton. “Birds are a linking point, but not necessarily the point — it’s all about habitat.”

Programs for teens

Morton, who recently relocated to Seattle from the Arizona desert (“where everything is dry, pointy and poisonous”), has fallen in love with mossy trees during her crash course in Northwest forest ecology. Her goal is inspiring teens to become educated citizens and consumers by involving them in hands-on learning. One project puts high-schoolers in the shoes of research scientists as they collect data for a long-term forest restoration study.

“We provide students with objective knowledge and scientific facts that will allow them to make informed decisions based on their own lifestyles, backgrounds, cultures and beliefs,” Morton said. “By understanding how scientific data is gathered, for example, they’ll have a new perspective when they watch the news. They’ll understand the background of the stories they hear and appreciate the rigor of the scientific process.”

In one experiment, students will use gel electrophoresis to make a DNA fingerprint of plant tissue, then compare local species with restoration plants to ensure a good match. Teens doing field research will take notes for baseline animal studies — how many of a certain species visit a site in the park, what do they use it for, how long are they there? This data will contribute to research on how animal behavior changes as restoration efforts progress.

“It’s hard for educational institutions to convince foundations to support the somewhat immeasurable effect educating students about environmental issues has,” said Christine Roux, a Roosevelt High School Language Arts teacher who runs a class called “Living In Place,” focused on the relationship of humans and nature. “To have a bunch of people push for change and see the importance of bringing young people into the fold is fabulous.”

Roux’s class participated in a pilot program at the center: “They huddled together and bonded in ways you simply cannot do in a classroom.”

For preschoolers, forest facts are memorably imparted by the Talking Tree. A naturalist in a tree costume teaches the importance of trees within the urban ecosystem, how people and animals use trees, the similarities between children and trees, and how individuals can help trees. Then kids go on a guided forest walk.

“I hope we can become an open, objective source of information about environmental and scientific issues,” Morton said. “People can become better consumers because they know what the impacts of their consumption are and can make larger lifestyle decisions.”

Freelance writer Kathryn True of Vashon Island is a regular contributor to Northwest Weekend. Contact her through her Web site: www.kathryntrue.com