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Center Offers a Wild Mix of Nature Programs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Working on the theme that to lose touch with nature is to lose touch with yourself, the Center for Earth Concerns offers a variety of programs to nudge visitors toward its aim of making people better citizens of the planet.

Founded by John and Melody Taft, original owners of the property southwest of Ojai, the center has put together an eclectic mix of programs.

Boy Scouts camp in the wilderness at the rear of the 275-acre property. Patagonia Inc. has used the site to hold sensitivity sessions. Every month, people gather for bird-watching walks and tours of the center’s 30-acre garden. Visitors can learn how to arrange native plants, have a meal while watching the night sky with Ojai’s resident astronomer Ernie Underhay and learn from a naturalist what wild plants can be used in salads and which to avoid.

“We want everyone who walks through the door to walk out a different person,” says Melody Taft, 47, a former schoolteacher who heads the 4-year-old center’s education arm, which designs mini-courses for local schools and coordinates field trips.

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Twenty years ago, when they began buying up foothill land a mile off Highway 150, the Tafts had little idea what they would do with the property. Formerly the Clark Ranch, the land was originally scheduled to be divided into five-acre parcels. The couple picked up the property when it was sold for back taxes. “I didn’t want to see it subdivided,” says John Taft, 64, who co-developed two shopping centers in Ventura.

The Tafts originally thought of growing oranges or avocados at the ranch, but the plan was nixed when a grower they consulted suggested such a large piece of natural land was most valuable if left alone.

The Tafts indulged their taste for plants that thrive in a Mediterranean climate, traveling to Australia and South Africa to develop a botanical garden that now contains one of the United States’ largest private collections of plants native to those countries.

Hearing of the strange garden in the hills above Lake Casitas, local residents gravitated to the property, and the Tafts invited them in. John, a lecturer and filmmaker who has been involved with the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society for three decades, gave tours.

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In 1991, when the demand became too much to handle, the Tafts deeded the bulk of the acreage to the Conservancy Endowment Foundation, a nonprofit organization they established in 1981 to assist environmental organizations in California. The foundation opened the center to the public in 1995.

The center, where admission is by appointment only, is now a repository for what were originally the Tafts’ personal passions--John’s plants and Melody’s abandoned and injured birds.

Melody Taft says the center gets up to four calls a week from anxious pet owners asking the center to adopt its exotic pets, especially owners of parrots who can’t handle the tropical birds.

The center has installed huge aviaries to house what has become a collection of 65 abandoned and unwanted birds. The bird population will likely expand when the center initiates a raptor program to care for and house injured hawks and eagles.

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All of this makes for a strange but interesting mix of things to experience at the center.

“You’re up there in what feels like California, and you hear these wild jungle sounds from the birds,” remembers Lu Setnicka, who works for Patagonia’s community services.

By September, the center hopes to have a 50-passenger, electric-powered boat plying the waters of Lake Casitas. The floating classroom will be equipped with microscopes for amateur naturalists anxious to understand the relationship between wildlife, land and water.

The boat program is being spearheaded by center board member Pat Weinberger, a veteran conservationist who helped interest Edison International in building and marketing electric-powered boats.

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Other plans for the center include a self-guided nature tour and a walk-through aviary. The center requests donations ranging from $7 for garden tours and bird walks to $20 for the flower-arranging classes.


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