Canada geese skim across the ponds at Rogers Environmental Education Center, just outside the Chenango County village of Sherburne. Whitetail deer, gray foxes, beavers, turtles, frogs and rabbits roam the lush forests, just as they have since the only humans hiking through those woods were Haudenosaunee. The wildlife apparently never got layoff notices, as six staff members did, when the state Department of Environmental Conservation closed down the operation on Dec. 31, 2010.
You can't stop nature and in this case the dedication of the center's volunteer board of directors, known as the Friends of Rogers, was just as persistent. By April 2011 the Friends had signed an agreement with DEC which still owns the preserve, reopening it and getting to work on re-establishing programs and special events. The community is once again enjoying Rogers for its children's programming, bird-watching, hiking and snowshoeing on the trails, wildlife education and tours of its nature center and bird exhibit cabin. Annual special events continue as traditional favorites, from the Winter Living Celebration to the Animals of Halloween.
Saturday, May 5, from noon to 4:30 p.m., the Rogers center, 2721 Route 80, Sherburne, will stage another of its signature events: Earth Fest, a nature-themed festival that takes on the added significance of raising awareness that this rustic gem dazzles as a year-round destination. 'Each year for Earth Fest we have different types of presenters and booths set up and then we have entertainment as well,' promises Rogers coordinator Cara Sefchick. 'We have canoes and kayaks to try. We have live music, Cornell Cooperative Extension doing gardening exhibits and Trout Unlimited doing fishing demonstrations. Solarize Madison will be here and we do a lot to promote green living. We'll also have crafts vendors. There is no charge for admission or parking.' Complete Earth Fest information is on the group's website, friendsofrogers.org.
Opened in 1909 as the state's first game farm and converted in 1966
into the state's first conservation education center, Rogers consists of
600 acres of woodlands, trails, ponds and wildlife on three parcels:
the main property, which features the primary structures, Kush Hill and
Adams Farm, each with roughly 2 miles of hiking trails. 'You can get to
all three from here,' Sefchick notes from the visitor center, 'but one
is across the street and one is down the road, so they're all in this
general area. The other two areas don't have buildings on them; they're
mainly for hiking.'
The visitor center houses an office, a classroom and meeting space as well as a reference library, a bookstore/gift shop and a wildlife exhibit room with a huge taxidermy display. A picture window spans the entire width of the building, affording a panoramic view of the pond and shoreline in back, viewable through binoculars from inside.
The other public building is dedicated to the study of birds, with stuffed examples of many native species. The wide variety of habitats and the presence of water on the grounds make Rogers a prime bird-watching locale, hosting many migratory varieties.
The third building, known as the stone house and formerly used as a residence for the director of the center, now provides housing for interns. 'It's not used for events,' Sefchick says. 'The interns live there. Depending on how long they're here for, they stay there while they're doing their internship. It's one of the things that we're able to offer the interns: housing right across from the main parking lot of the center so they can walk here.'
A spectacular free-standing pavilion, known as the outdoor classroom, just a few steps from the visitor center, has a concrete floor, electric lights and a gabled roof with skylights. 'We use it for our major events and for programs on the weekends,' Sefchick says. A tower on the Kush Hill property allows visitors to gets a bird's-eye view of the preserve and the nearby village of Sherburne. A few lean-tos are scattered through the woods.
The 12-member Friends board reopened the center in September 2011
with limited hours and has worked tirelessly toward expanding
operations. 'The Friends of Rogers has existed for some time,' Sefchick
explains. 'They've always been involved with the center. They are the
ones who have done the annual events the last few years. Their role just
changed significantly from what it what before. It was the board of
directors that really spearheaded keeping things in motion. Other
community members have been very involved that aren't on the board, that
supported this and helped get things rolling, but I've got to give
credit to the board for getting things truly off the ground.'
Friends in Need
While Sefchick, a former intern and volunteer, hired in August 2011, is the only staffer paid directly from Rogers' funds, the influence of the center extends beyond its boundaries and into area schools with classroom presentations and teacher workshops held by Chesapeake Bay-based educator Amy Kochem. A grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pays her salary, while more staffing is provided by the interns, also through grants.
'I've been here continuously since 2000,' Kochem explains. 'When the facility shut down in December, I still had grant funding left for my position. The money goes to the Friends of Rogers, so I'm technically an employee of the Friends of Rogers.'
Kochem's visits to local schools provide vital outreach to the
community at a time when schools had to cut back on field trips due to
budget reductions. 'What I do is go into schools and bring in mammal
furs and skulls and do mammal lessons and bird lessons and pond ecology
lessons,' she says. 'The kids have fun, we have hands-on stuff. We teach
about eight different classes.'
While grants provide critical funding for programming expenses, the
DEC mows the landscaped areas, plows the parking lots and does major
upkeep on the buildings under the operating agreement. 'This is
something that the DEC wanted to happen,' says intern coordinator and
board member Fred von Mechow. 'They didn't want to close the center, but
to save money they did. They proposed to the Friends that they enter
into a contract to use the facility and operate it. They did the same
thing downstate at Stonykill.'
Coordinating the interns is a job for which von Mechow has impeccable credentials. 'I was the program director here for 23 years as a state employee,' he points out. 'When the center closed, I retired rather than being laid off and I have since joined the board. I was the intern coordinator before, so it made sense to continue on with that particular function now for the Friends of Rogers.'
The board has restored many of the activities and functions the
center held under the DEC as it works toward raising money to pay the
bills. 'You go from an estimated $400,000 state budget to trying to
figure out what your budget's going to be, one employee from six
employees,' Sefchick explains. 'The big challenge is finding ways to
maintain and come up with the funding to keep everything operating.
That's the biggest challenge: The Friends of Rogers is responsible for
all of the operating expenses of the center. The Friends of Rogers has
been together for some time as a support organization, but never at this
The board is counting on community support to help keep Rogers fully
open at a much lower cost than when the DEC operated it. 'We can't have
exact numbers for the budget because this is the organization's first
time being responsible for the overall operation of the building as far
as the utilities go,' Sefchick notes. 'We can get a general idea of
expenses, but I think until we go through the first year and see how
things fall into place to have exact numbers, as far as the budget goes,
we're still working on it. It's not going to take $400,000 to keep the
center running. That's not our goal as far as fundraising goes. We feel
confident that with $100,000 we could do it, if not less.'
While recruiting new members at one of five levels and soliciting
financial support through a direct mailing campaign, the board also held
the organization's first off-site fundraiser, the Rogers Spring Frolic
on March 30 at the swanky Colgate Inn in Hamilton. 'It was wonderful,'
Sefchick reports. 'We surpassed our goals.'
Support also comes in the form of volunteer participation, many of whom help out with specific events. 'At the winter living celebration we get 50, 60, 70 volunteers who help us on that day,' von Mechow says. 'Getting people to come in on that one day is a lot easier and some people have been doing it year after year just because they enjoy coming that one day.'
Building upon the volunteer base is definitely in the plans as another step toward operating the center at peak level. 'We have a lot of wonderful volunteers supporting the center,' Sefchick says. 'We're always looking for more volunteers. Another new thing we do is full-moon member nights, where members or those interested in being members meet up here and go for a hike, see what we can see and then hang out here with some hot chocolate, just kind of an opportunity for the members to get together and meet other people. Those we have every month.'
Rogers currently opens its buildings Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; additional hours and special events are posted on the website. The grounds are open to hikers, picnickers and wildlife enthusiasts daily from dawn to dusk. There is no charge to visit. A sign in front of the visitor center reads 'Rogers Environmental Center, connecting New Yorkers with nature.' The wealth of wildlife throughout this Southern Tier treasure lies ready for visitors as the Friends of Rogers work diligently to make sure it continues to operate.
'One of the biggest challenges is letting people know about the
change and where we are as far as the center goes,' Sefchick says. 'A
lot of people don't think we have anything going on, that we're totally
closed and don't even know that we're doing this. So getting the word
out has been a struggle. It's a matter of getting those people who
wanted to be involved and getting them back here to get us moving with
projects and volunteering.'