Photo: L. Carol Ritchie
The Gulf Branch Nature Center will celebrate its 46th birthday on Saturday, a milestone it wouldn’t have reached without the enthusiasm of an army of neighbors and volunteers.
Activists formed the Friends of Gulf Branch Nature Center in 2009 when the county threatened to close the center. The group raised $10,000 to help keep the center open and allow the building to be staffed on Sundays.
Gulf Branch is close to the Potomac Overlook Park, and county officials reasoned that north Arlington only needed one nature center. Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority runs Potomac Overlook, which features long trails, a large green lawn, gardens and large bird enclosures.
“We don’t run Potomac Overlook, but it’s still a way cool nature center,” said county spokeswoman Susan Kalish. “But then a huge group of people jumped behind Gulf Branch to keep it open.”
“It was a reasonably grim time for the nature centers,” said Christopher Prins, neighbor and Gulf Branch booster. “The local community here stepped in both to provide the hours as well as the money to support the center. Without them, I’m questioning whether it would even be in existence.”
Closing the 1920s-era limestone building, which was once home to silent film star Pola Negri, would have saved the county $132,000 a year.
This spring, the Arlington County board approved $26,000 to restore full weekend hours at Gulf Branch and at Long Branch Nature Center in south Arlington. Both centers will be open from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays starting July 1.
Long Branch, which never felt the threat of closure, never had a community rally for its benefit, Kalish said. Long Branch is currently closed on Sundays.
“We are very appreciative for all they’ve done,” said naturalist Marty Pross. “It’s also lots of fun, working with the neighborhood people … It’s nice to get some new people with new ways of thinking.”
Since 2009 the Friends of Gulf Branch has run weekend birthday parties at the center to raise funds, and has built an elaborate owl house for the late Mr. Owl and now a home to a new rescued owl.
“It’s one of the biggest attractions at the nature center,” said Prins. “There’s lots of things to do there, but the owl house is what the kids all come to see.”
Gulf Branch is holding its own birthday celebration Saturday, June 16, with live animal encounters, music from the New Old Time String Band and an “open forge” with the Blacksmiths’ Guild.