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Ernie Miller Nature Center preserves wildlife for Johnson County

Special to The Star

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The Ernie Miller Nature Center offers a slice of wildlife in Johnson County’s backyard.

The 116-acre wildlife park at 909 North Highway 7 in Olathe gives residents a break from the hustle of urban and suburban life, said Bill McGowan, education manager for the park. The park, established in 1966, has more than three miles of hiking trails through prairie, woodland and creek habitats as well as an indoor nature center with live animals like owls, hawks, amphibians and fish.

McGowan said it all attracts a wide range of people.

“People hike and run, or walk with kids and strollers,” he said. “Some come out here for lunch and sit in their car or on a bench.”

For the kids, he said, the park offers three-day camps that run from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for 10 weeks. The camps include wildlife lessons and field trips to places like the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. At least once a week the campers make a trip to the Timber Ridge Adventure Center, 12300 South Homestead Lane, where children can learn archery, BB-gun shooting, fishing, canoeing or kayaking and camping.

Day camps and specialty camps, like Animal Tales, a story time on Mondays and Wednesdays for preschoolers, are also available. In the fall and spring the nature center hosts field trips with popular themes like “Snakes Alive,” an archeological dig and a challenge course at Timber Ridge. Park officials can also do presentations at schools or club events, McGowan said.

It’s free to hike the trails and visit the nature center at the Ernie Miller Nature Center, but the summer camps and other courses carry fees. McGowan said the fees go to support the park and pay the salary of the six park employees.

McGowan said it’s important for people to be in nature because it provides a source of relaxation. Being surrounded in the park by plants and animals like like deer, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, owls, hawks and occasionally beavers is a rare experience for many people.

“For the first time in history children and even some adults are disconnected with nature,” McGowan said.

Park naturalist Andrea Johnson, who is pursing a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Kansas, published a paper on how being in nature affects productivity. Research she found showed that people have better memory, are more creative and better at problem solving when they are exposed to nature regularly.

Johnson said there are benefits to “just getting away from the stresses of the day and being in the beauty of nature,” which exposes people to different types of stimulants.

She said children in camps at Ernie Miller rarely talk about TV and video games because they’re so interested in in the plant and wildlife. Some of the research she looked at for her paper showed that outdoor activities decreased the symptoms of ADD and ADHD, but more importantly she said, nature is good for the spirit.

“I don’t know if people are ever unhappy when they go to a park and see animals and plants,” Johnson said.

Leawood mother Kim Prier knows the importance of nature and hopes to pass her passion down to her children.

Prier frequently hikes in the backwoods and camps with friends, but her daughters, 4-year-old Annabelle and 7-year-old Adeline, are too young for that kind of outdoor adventure. So Prier has made visits to the nature center with her children almost weekly during the summer for the last five years. Not only do the girls participate in day and summer camps, but Prier also takes them on hikes in the park. She said her daughters love to dig in the dirt, catch bugs and explore.

“We’ll be out there for three hours and not cover many miles,” she said.

As they age, Prier said she hopes the girls’ outdoor activities advance, and one day she’d like to take them hiking and camping. Prier said she wants the girls to develop an appreciation for the outdoors because many children grow up unexposed to nature.

“I don’t want them to say ‘Ew, bugs!’ or ‘Dirt is gross,’ ” Prier said.

For herself, she said being at the park is a throwback to her childhood.

“It’s nostalgic for me,” she said.

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