Volunteers needed to clean up Red Oaks Nature Center

April 28 event will tidy up park that is now run by Oakland County

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published April 19, 2013

 Randy Dutton, of Madison Heights, helps rake up debris scattered about the pond at the nature center during last year’s spring clean-up.

Randy Dutton, of Madison Heights, helps rake up debris scattered about the pond at the nature center during last year’s spring clean-up.

File photo by Erin Sanchez

MADISON HEIGHTS — Spring is a time of renewal, in more ways than one at the Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods.

Greenery is returning to the park — a slice of solitude in the middle of a bustling city. The nature center, itself, is sporting some new renovations and programming, as a result of Oakland County Parks and Recreation agreeing to run the park for the next 25 years. 

Spring is also a fresh start for the park, in that it’s time for the annual clean-up event, which last spring saw around 120 people turning out to sweep away debris, paint where needed and otherwise tidy up the place.

Now in its fourth year, the clean-up event will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 28. This is the day after the annual Run for the Health of It “Healthy Heights” 5k Run/Walk, also at the nature center at 30300 Hales, south of 13 Mile between John R and Dequindre, across the street from Red Oaks Waterpark.

There will be a light breakfast consisting of coffee and doughnuts, and a free lunch including hotdogs.

Oakland County Commissioner Gary McGillivray (District 20) started the event as a way to pick up the slack when a cash-strapped Madison Heights couldn’t afford DPS resources to maintain the park grounds as well as they did in the past.

“The park gets a lot of use, between folks that walk the paths in the woods and those who come in to use the nature center itself,” McGillivray said. “There are so many people that use it on a daily basis that we want to keep it looking nice.”

McGillivray usually aims to have the clean-up event before the 5k, but this year, the timing didn’t work out. This doesn’t change the fact that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. There’s the usual brush left over from winter, which will need to be raked up and disposed of, but there are also a couple of special projects to be done this year, as well.  

One is the creation of a woodchip path running from one of the trails in the woods to the parking lot of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, which borders the park on the east. Currently, school buses have some trouble bringing children to the park, but county officials have been talking to the church about utilizing their parking lot to drop off kids, who can then reach the nature center through the swinging gate in the church lot. It is far easier for the buses to turn around in the church’s parking lot than at the nature center.

The other task that needs work is the removal of an invasive plant species called “garlic mustard” that is growing in Suarez Friendship Woods. Volunteers will be shown what the plant looks like and asked to pull it up wherever it appears, much like weeding.

“Just wear regular work clothes,” McGillivray advised. “I don’t think there will be any painting involved or anything like that, but certainly you may be on your hands and knees pulling these garlic mustard plants, or working in some fashion. Hopefully, we will have good weather.”

The clean-up event is also an opportunity to learn about volunteering at the park. When the city of Madison Heights cut nature center staffing from the budget in 2010, volunteers stepped in to maintain limited hours of operation while the city worked out the deal with Oakland County. When the county formally took over last October, many of the volunteers stayed on board.

In recognition of their efforts, the group went to Lansing in March to receive the Michigan Recreation & Park Association Community Service Award. Now they’re embarking on a new chapter in the nature center’s life, and fresh blood is always needed.

It’s an exciting time for the nature center. The entire building received a facelift following county management, wherein the interior was cleaned up, the walls were repainted and new displays were established, including stations where kids can examine items with microscopes, or “teaching tables” where they can touch and feel rocks.

There are a number of live animals on display — the turtles, fish, snakes and other creatures familiar to nature center visitors in the past. There is also a reading corner for children and adults, as well as abundant information on animals in the area, all tailored to the theme of urban wildlife.

“It’s about the way nature strikes a balance (between wilderness and human society),” said Sue Wells, manager of operations for Oakland County Parks and Recreation. “Even in that small area, there are deer, there are ducks — the animal population there is unbelievable. And I think you will find that this is quite common in other pockets of land in the urban corridor.”

Wells noted how a wide variety of exotic birds stop by Suarez Friendship Woods as part of their seasonal migratory patterns. For this reason, the county has partnered up with the Oakland County Audubon Society to offer a junior bird program for youth wanting to get involved in bird watching. It’s one example of the sort of collaborative programming the county is interested in pursuing.

The county also has a part-time naturalist onsite, who is spearheading a series called Wild Wednesday Nights. The next night’s topic is “Vernal Pond,” on Wednesday, May 1; after that, there will be “Incredible Insects,” on Wednesday, June 5. The free event runs from 6:30-7:30 p.m.

“We’re always looking at new opportunities for nature education,” Wells said. “And we’re still using volunteers. The group can always use new people.”

The new hours of operation at the Red Oaks Nature Center are from 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 switched.

Since January, a one-year vehicle permit is 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. Non-residents pay $46 for a vehicle permit.

The 4th Annual Red Oaks Nature Center Spring Clean-Up will be at the Red Oaks Nature Center, 30300 Hales in Madison Heights, south of 13 Mile between John R and Dequindre, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 28. For more information, call the nature center at (248) 585-0100.