Amanda Nichols is in her element among the trees, especially when she gets a chance to share her love of nature with others.
As the BREC naturalist guided a small group on a tour of Blackwater Conservation Area as part of BREC’s Woods Walk series on Saturday, themed “Autumn Adaptations,” she talked about the history of the property while naming and describing the unique species that call the area home.
“This is a tallow tree,” Nichols said as she pointed to a tree bearing colorful, bright red leaves. “It has beautiful colors in the fall, even though it’s invasive.”
Though the tours are relatively new at BREC, the process isn’t something that’s unfamiliar to Nichols. She’s been in her role with the conservation department at BREC for more than a year, trying to bring awareness about the different recreational areas available to East Baton Rouge Parish residents through programs such as this fall’s Woods Walk series.
New BREC programs, many of which Nichols leads, focus on outdoor education and on getting the public to understand the importance of these areas scattered around the parish.
“We need (these areas) here,” Nichols said. “These habitats are important because they prevent floods (and) protect water; we need to understand how those relationships work.”
A naturalist, as Nichols described it, “is normally someone who is going to be in charge of advocating for conservation areas and who also is in charge of educating the public and providing programming.” The role includes “managing natural areas and documenting biodiversity,” she added.
The role of naturalist in the Bayou State is still a learning process for the Ohio native. She’s had to learn many of the species unique to south Louisiana, especially plants, because of the long blooming season common here.
Adjusting to the heat, though, is perhaps Nichols’ most daunting task.
“I’m still working on getting used to summer heat,” she recalled of the weather just a few months ago. “In terms of beauty and majesty (in Louisiana), it’s all here. You just don’t see it quite as easily as a mountain that’s slammed right in front of you.”
The learning curve is just another day on the job for Nichols, who has dabbled in outdoor-related work ranging from North Dakota to Colorado since her days as an undergraduate student.
A bachelor’s in environmental science and a master’s in geology and geoscience education offered the opportunity to wear multiple hats, ranging from being an adjunct faculty member to serving as an intern in Denali National Park in Alaska.
“In Alaska … I gave dog sled demos,” she said. “I would get to hook up a team of dogs to an antique sled and ride around a rock track to show how the whole thing works.”
On Saturday, Nichols again had an opportunity to share her passion for nature and respect for the environment with the public.
Alex Shackleford, 9, of Baton Rouge, was among those listening and learning during the walk through the woods. He lined up with others to rub a male deer skull that served as a demonstration of whitetail behavior.
“It was awesome,” Shackelford said of the white-colored skull and antlers. He added that he didn’t know that rubbing their antlers was how deer marked their territory.
Nichols hopes experiences similar to Shackelford’s can continue, and she’s optimistic they will. The Woods Walk series, for instance, continues until December, and other BREC programs offer educational opportunities throughout the year.
Nichols has her eyes set on the future of her department, of which she is the only employee. She’s hopeful her passion for outdoor education and BREC’s initiative to bring recreational opportunities to the public will allow programs, and her department, to be expanded.
“By offering programs, we give people a way to experience nature in a comfortable setting,” Nichols said. “They learn something about the local area they can take with them, and the overall goal is to instill this sense of ownership and respect.”