Woodcock Nature Center in Wilton, Ridgefield celebrates 50 years: ‘It’s people that built this place’

Former Ridgefield First Selectman J. Mortimer Woodcock once envisioned a place where the public could go to observe nature up close — a place that offered immersive experiences to educate visitors about the importance of conservation.

That place — the Woodcock Nature Center — celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. And while much has changed over the last half century, its mission of connecting people to the great outdoors has remained steadfast.

Since 1972, the center has provided educational opportunities for learners of all ages through school field trips, summer camps, specialty classes and enrichment programs. It regularly partners with local organizations to engage the public with the natural world, offering workshops, guided hikes and animal encounters on site.

Woodcock’s preserve straddles Wilton and Ridgefield and comprises nearly 150 acres of land originally inhabited by the Siwanog Native American tribe. Along nearly four miles of hiking trails, visitors can find historic stonewalls, vernal pools and other natural wonders.

Ridgefield resident Allan Welby, a member of the town’s Conservation Commission, most enjoys the boardwalk that leads out into the marsh.

“The trails and boardwalk are particularly wonderful in the spring, when you’re likely to encounter many of the gorgeous songbirds that are migrating through the area,” he added. “The place is a gem.”

Welby’s experience is one of countless anecdotes from generations of loyal visitors. The center’s board president, Jana Hogan, first visited in 2014 while on a hike with her family. She became a volunteer shortly after.

“We’re very fortunate to live in a town that recognizes the importance of conservation, and Woodcock plays a big role in that,” said Hogan, of Ridgefield. “It has a really great history of … educating the community about (conservation), which is as relevant today as it was in the ’70s.”

Sarah Breznen has been an educator with Woodcock since 2009; she became the director of education in 2018. All of the center’s field trips support Next Generation Science Standards and include habitat explorations, hands-on activities and inquiry-based learning.

“Our goal is to give students the knowledge and tools to be environmentally literate so they can face environmental challenges with optimism,” Breznen said. “This is especially important as younger generations grow up with increased storms and weather inconsistencies, more invasive plants … and the ongoing loss of native species.”

The center has grown to offer special fundraisers that come with an educational component, too, including the annual Frothy Forage. Woodcock has a schedule of “golden” events planned through October to coincide with the 50th anniversary.

Leadership has also started work to revitalize the center’s long-term strategy as well as its visual identity. Executive Director Lenore Herbst said the board is receiving sketches for a new logo this week.

“There’s something very special (about Woodcock) that keeps people coming back and continue to grow it, and we see much of the same happening over the next 50 years,” she said. “We want to do more and bring more people into the fold so they can make it a part of their … own history.”

That history, Hogan remarked, is something to behold.

“It was not an easy feat to put this thing together,” she said. Former Ridgefield First Selectman “Lou Fossi moved the main staff house … to where it is today since the property is in a 100-year flood zone. … Woodcock purchased the house and donated it to the center,” which currently serves as its administration building.

“It’s people that built this place,” Herbst added. “It’s people that keep it going.”

Woodcock leadership is looking for stories that share how the center has shaped the community over the past 50 years. Submissions can be emailed to wncboard@woodcocknaturecenter.org.

For a complete schedule of activities, visit www.woodcocknaturecenter.org/upcomingevents.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com