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CENTER TEACHES NATURAL LESSONS.

Byline: Jon Engellenner The Sacramento Bee

A walk along the trail at the Placer Nature Center gives kids a new outlook. By the end of their 1-1/4-mile stroll, squeamishness gives way to optimism in their under-the-rocks searches for spiders, worms and centipedes.

``You need to know that you shouldn't be afraid of bugs and spiders,'' docent Carroll Mistler tells a group of third-graders. ``You don't need to kill them. They live here.''

So do a lot of other creatures and, in disproportionately growing numbers, humans.

That's the message of the center, a nonprofit outdoor ecology classroom north of Auburn - the Placer County foothills are a magnet for new residents, and the newcomers need to know what they're getting into.

The nature center, founded in 1991, tackles environmental education through the schools. It has curriculum from kindergarten through high school and its 50 volunteer docents hosted 3,700 schoolchildren last year, said Leslie Warren, program director.

The nature center grounds aren't a parklike agglomeration of natural wonders. Their educational value rests on the fact they are a typical swath of foothills - not at the edge of a wilderness but next door to the California Conservation Corps energy center in Christian Valley. The property has been farmed, mined and logged.

The nature center is about how things fit together, and how some, like poison oak, are extra pieces of the puzzle.

Nowhere is other vegetation better adapted to wet winters and hot, dry summers. Like the rest of the foothills, it can be lush and even soggy from December through March and oven-parched and prickly from June through October.

And nowhere does poison oak grow better.

``If anybody could find a use for poison oak he'd be a millionaire,'' said docent Mistler.

Although they could find uses for many plants, the Indians of the foothills seem to have struck out with poison oak, he noted. They did find many uses for soap root - among others, it worked well for treating poison oak's itchy rash.

The nature center's canopy of live oaks, gray pines and willows shelters a broad range of animals: hummingbirds, toads, deer, mountain lions. Even a pile of rotting oak wood is a home site for termites, said Kandra Burgess, a nature center docent.

Like the Sacramento region's people-pressured hill country, the nature center land isn't exactly serene or pristine. Stopping to listen to the sounds of nature, the third-graders hear a bird singing, wind whistling through the oaks and a jet howling above the clouds. They catch a glimpse of a rangy jack rabbit and an acrid whiff of a gray-water settling pond. They get a lecture that stresses how seemingly abandoned baby wild animals are best left alone.

While teaching nature to schoolchildren is a natural, the center's affiliated Placer Land Trust has a slightly more complex task, said Warren.

Since 1991 the trust has acquired conservation and education rights to just one parcel, 30 acres on the north fork of the American River that it shares with the Auburn Park Conservancy.

That land is scheduled to be used for seminars this summer on river and canyon ecology, Warren said.

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos

Photo: (1) Third-graders head out on a hike at the Place r Nature Center, which introduces children and residents to the foothills.

(2) Kyle Padilla takes in a tree during a docent-led walk at the Placer Nature Center, northeast of Sacramento.

The Sacramento Bee
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 21, 1996
Words:571
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