Jim Mason is a natural for Great Plains Nature Center director

Jim Mason is the new director of the Great Plains Nature Center. (Dec. 22, 2014)
Jim Mason is the new director of the Great Plains Nature Center. (Dec. 22, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

As a kid, Jim Mason was so mesmerized watching ants take apart a dead grasshopper in his back yard that he lost track of time and got a sunburn.

That fascination with wildlife led Mason to a long career as a naturalist with the city of Wichita and ultimately to his new job as director of the Great Plains Nature Center in northeast Wichita.

“A lot of kids go through a bug phase. I just never grew out of mine,” Mason said.

Mason, who was a naturalist at the center, took over as director last week, replacing Lorrie Beck, who retired after two years in the position. The job is a perfect fit for somebody who grew up with a passion for nature, he said.

“It’s an honor for me to work here, much less direct the place,” Mason said.

Mason, a Wichita native who earned a biology degree from the University of Kansas in 1975, has worked for Wichita’s Park and Recreation Department since 1978. He served on the planning and design committee for the center in the early 1990s.

The center near 29th and Woodlawn is a partnership among city, state and federal wildlife services. It offers programs, tours and information about natural resources, especially wildlife and plant species in the Great Plains region. More than 150,000 people visit the center each year.

Plans in the works

A number of projects are on Mason’s list of objectives for the center. In January, work will begin on the installation of solar panels to reduce the cost of electricity at the facility. The center was one of 15 organizations in Kansas that won grants to install solar energy projects as part of Westar Energy’s Solar Photovoltaic Project.

A new pocket book on Kansas’ stream fish is scheduled to come out in February to give people a greater appreciation of what lives in our streams, Mason said. He was co-author of the center’s Pocket Guide to Kansas Freshwater Mussels and the author of its Pocket Guide to Common Kansas Butterflies.

Once the center’s partners can finalize a new memorandum of agreement to extend its operations past 2016, it will consider a complete renovation of the Koch Habitat Hall, possibly adding a wing and creating a natural classroom for kids, Mason said. A conceptual framework for the new hall has been developed.

“We’re excited about the potential for that,” Mason said.

And a grant from the federal lands access program will allow the center to re-do its bicycle path. The path originally was constructed with asphalt, which didn’t hold up well in the park’s clay soil. It will be replaced with concrete and extended down Woodlawn and around the south side of the building so that it comes up to the parking lot and creates an access point from the path to the nature center, Mason said. Work should be done by the end of May.

He hopes to increase the center’s educational outreach, which has long been a passion of his. Mason is the author of two local history books: “Wichita’s History in Picture Postcards,” featuring 200 vintage postcards from nearly a century ago, and a book on Wichita’s Riverside Park. Mason grew up near the park and worked at the Riverside Zoo as a naturalist starting in 1979.

Making connections

In addition, he has given more than 2,500 educational programs to groups of all ages since he began his work as a naturalist for the city.

Mason credits that effort to Bob Gress, former city naturalist and Great Plains Nature Center director who was instrumental in getting the center built. Gress created the Wichita Wild urban nature education program within the city parks department, and “he let us run with it,” Mason said.

Naturalists were able to use real animals to connect urban children to the natural world, a connection a lot of urban kids can miss, Mason said.

“It’s possible to find those connections to nature in urban areas, but as time has gone on and people get more distracted by electronic devices and things you can do inside, you tend to miss out on some of these things,” Mason said. “I think it’s in our genes, I think it’s in our blood that we create that connection to the wild world.”

Without a basic understanding of nature, people may not be able to make smart decisions about how to manage natural resources, he said.

“If people at least understand what’s going on out there and how important it is, maybe they’ll come to appreciate it and want to protect it and maybe change their own behavior to improve the situation,” he said.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.