Rancho Santa Fe docent raises awareness of coastal wetlands


By Kristina Houck

Always fascinated by nature as a child, Suzanne McAllister now shares nature with children as a docent at San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve.

“Being a docent gives me a sense of giving back, being able to connect with kids and trying to help them get a sense of the world they’re going to inherit,” said the 55-year-old Rancho Santa Fe resident, who remembers running in the woods of her hometown in Connecticut, catching butterflies, collecting polliwogs and helping her parents in the garden. “I think a lot of kids don’t get out. They’re playing games and on computers. They’re losing what I had as a child — that sense of running out the door and being gone outside all day. This program is reconnecting kids with that side of life.”

Volunteer “naturalists,” or docents, guide thousands of people each year through the San Elijo Lagoon, nearly 1,000 acres of coastal wetlands located between Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Solana Beach, extending inland from Pacific Coast Highway to Rancho Santa Fe.

Launched in 1995, the docent program is funded by San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation, interpretation and public enjoyment of San Elijo Lagoon.

Already familiar with the reserve because of her frequent walks, McAllister decided to register for docent training after learning about the program. McAllister, an avid gardener and hobbyist beekeeper, had been looking for a new adventure since her grown children left home.

“I was looking for something that I could do on a local level that would give back and allow me to be involved with nature,” McAllister said. “I saw that they were doing this program, and I love nature and being outside, so I signed up for training.”

A graduate of the class of 2008, McAllister participated in the docent-training course led by former San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy Board Member Barbara Moore, who spearheaded the program. The course consisted of a few Saturday walks. There was no docent manual, so volunteers had to rely on their own notes.

Now, San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy offers a comprehensive docent manual, an eight-week training program and monthly meetings.

“It’s a tremendous naturalist training program,” McAllister said. “There’s tremendous support for the docents.”

The nonprofit currently has 40 docents who lead walks for children on field trips during the school week and for members of the public on weekends and summer evenings. Training covers the ecology and history of the reserve, as well as practical tips in interpretive techniques and how to lead groups of students and adults.

More than 3,800 people visited San Elijo Lagoon last year for docent-led field trips and nature walks.

“Unlike giving a talk in a museum where you always walk through and you know when you get in the next room that painting is going to be on the wall and you’re going to talk about it, in San Elijo, it’s wild and free. You never know what you’re going to see on a given day,” McAllister said. “Each walk you assess the group you have, what level they’re at, and filter, as you go along, what you see to make it relevant and useful to those kids. It’s challenging and really cool.”

San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy is currently expanding its education program and looking for more volunteers to lead guided walks and field trips, and help raise awareness about the wetlands.

“The program really is very rewarding,” McAllister said. “We want to try to heighten awareness with this generation to keep them caring about the world. There’s very little wetlands left. We are the caretakers. We want them to put the care into caretaking.”

The public is encouraged to learn more about the program during the Docent Open House from 3-5 p.m. on Sept. 8. at San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center, 2710 Manchester Ave., Cardiff-by-the-Sea.

Interested volunteers can apply online at Training is held 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday mornings, as well as two Saturday mornings, Oct. 1 through Nov. 19 at San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center.