Strong turnout marks nature center’s transition to Red Oaks
MADISON HEIGHTS — The nature center bustled with people during the privately sponsored Fall Open House Sept. 30. Not only was it a celebration of the season, but it also marked the last day the facility and surrounding park would be operated by the city.
On Oct. 1, Oakland County Parks and Recreation began managing the newly named Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods, located at 30300 Hales, south of 13 Mile and west of Dequindre. The deal also includes nearly 38 acres of woods and more than 1.3 miles of paved trails.
During the Fall Open House the day before, residents welcomed the county and also thanked the volunteers who kept the place open after the city cut nature center staffing from the budget in 2010.
“The crowd was very comparable to our great turnout last year,” said Ben Myers, the deputy city manager. “In fact, the weather was almost identical to the degree, 63 and partly sunny.”
There must’ve been around 1,300 to 1,500 people, he said, noting the folk band Picks ‘n Sticks drew crowds on the back patio of the log cabin-like nature center until 4 p.m., and the hayrides, which had two wagons in operation this year instead of one, serviced 975 individuals, up from 680 in 2011.
The petting farm was a hit with the kids, and The Home Depot once again brought birdhouse-building kits, quickly running out of all 130. The city brought about a hundred pre-built birdhouses for the kids to paint, keeping them busy until 2 p.m.
Metro Carvers Club of Michigan members also donated their time to set up a display showcasing their woodcarving projects.
Now the park is under county control. The new hours of operation are noon to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, noon to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and closed Sunday and Monday. The nature center was previously open on Sundays but not Saturdays, so weekend hours have essentially switched.
“We’ve set the hours for now, but will continue to identify really what the hours should be,” said Sue Wells, the county’s manager of parks and recreation operations. She noted the trails are still accessible outside the hours of operation, and nature center visits can be arranged after hours for schools, public events and so forth.
Starting in January, a one-year vehicle permit will be required to drive into the park. However, people can still walk and bike there freely. A one-year vehicle permit costs $30 for an Oakland County resident and is compatible with all county parks and facilities. Permits cost $22 for senior citizens ages 62 and older, people with permanent physical disabilities and active military members. Nonresidents pay $46 for a vehicle permit.
The city still retains the final say on any major developments at the park. In addition to adding a full-time naturalist and two part-time seasonal specialists, supported by park maintenance staff, a natural resources manager will monitor the woodland ecosystem to ensure its health and protection against invasive species.
Improvements to the trails are also planned, and programming will be expanded so that educational activities can take place out in the field and are no longer limited to the nature center itself.
The park may have many new resources at its disposal, but volunteers can still make a difference, not only at the Red Oaks Nature Center, but at other park facilities, including the nearby dog park, golf course, water park and youth soccer complex.
“We are still utilizing the volunteer workforce that was so dedicated in keeping the nature center going,” Wells said. “We’re learning from them, and we’ve held a few orientations for our new volunteers also.
“There are many different opportunities for volunteers,” she concluded. “And I think we, at the county, are still identifying new opportunities, not only here, but at Independence Oaks,” the site of the county’s only other nature center.
The volunteers have remained loyal to the nature center, even serving doughnuts and cider to the public at the Fall Open House. This fact is not lost on the city.
“I want to thank the volunteers who have been with us through thick and thin during our process with the county,” Myers said. “This event (the Fall Open House) was as much a tribute to them as it was the fall season.”
The Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods is located at 30300 Hales, south of 13 Mile and west of Dequindre. Those interested in volunteering can call Rachel Boyd at (