The Nature of
by Bill Weaver
"I love teaching people about nature,” says Jim Eagleman, “and I love observing it myself.”
Eagleman is the Naturalist at Brown County State Park. The first thing you notice about Jim is his sense of humor, which he uses like a kid poking a hornets’ nest with a stick. It’s fun but sometimes it hurts.
Jim grew up in small town in Pennsylvania Dutch country. “My dad was a veterinarian. We had a farm where we cut hay for the sheep, rode horses, swam in and fished the creeks. There’s an old Revolutionary War tavern in town. I’d walked by this tavern twice a day to school and didn’t know until last week that in 1774 George Washington had come there and met the local militia. They had a ceremony for him and he came onto the steps of the tavern and invited them in for a drink. It’s all documented. Where were the teachers? Why didn’t they tell us that?”
Eagleman’s sense of outrage is understandable because to him teaching is important. It’s also a large part of his job at the State Park.
The Eagleman family moved to Urbana in 1961 when Jim’s father accepted a position with the University of Illinois’s veterinary faculty. Jim intended to follow in his father’s career but quickly realized “my heart wasn’t in it. I saw the foresters going off to forestry camp and the wildlife students going to the field stations and studying plants. I knew that my passion was there.”
Eagleman graduated in 1974 with a Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Science and a year later was called in for a job interview by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Unfortunately he forgot about the time difference between Urbana and Indianapolis. “I was almost late for my interview and ran up there. I was hot and sweaty and had to wear a shirt and a tie. ‘Oh man. this makes a great impression,’” he remembers thinking. But it all worked out. “Within a week I got a call and worked in Brown County as a summer program person. It was a great break for me.”
Soon after Eagleman was offered a full time position at Turkey Run State Park. During this time he completed a Master’s degree in Botany at DePauw University, commuting to class on his days off. He’d started a Ph.D. in Biology Education, at Purdue when “the family started growing. I didn’t go for the doctorate. The boys took priority and that was fine,” he adds amiably.
Although he enjoyed working at Turkey Run, he moved back to Brown County Park when the Naturalist position opened in the winter of 1978. “I love the fact that it’s big,” he says about the Park. “That I haven’t seen it all. If you don’t have your wits you can get good and lost in here. That sense of hugeness, I think to many people, is its appeal.”
A large part of being a Naturalist is teaching. “Education is my main job, and publicitymeeting and dealing with the public. I have a staff that puts on programs. I stay behind the scenes, evaluate the programs, and do administrative work. Luckily the job has allowed me to change and grow.
“Education is vital so visitors will know about why the parks do the things they do,” he continues. “When we’re involved in resource management change, like deer hunts, or burns, or alien plant removal, people want to know why. Along with our management plan is our education planto tell people why.”
Eagleman is still amazed at the change that has taken place in park management. “For years parks were ‘Hands off!’ We had to get into a whole philosophy changea mission changea policy changeat the state level for us to hunt deer. We realized that hands-on and pro-active was what was needed. We want the Park to be a tourist attraction, a camping site, and a lodge placethat’s what it isbut we can’t disregard the health of the forest.”
Recent cutbacks have hampered but not stymied this work. “We struggle as you would suspect,” he says. “We’ve cut back considerably on seasonal crews so the full time staff has to pick up the slack. We get by pretty well but I’m not able to pay staff the way I’d like to. You struggle and you juggle.”
The inevitable consequence of the state budget crises is an increase in park fees. “You hear people say, ‘Well, I knew it was coming.’ We squeaked by with less negative feeling than if we’d sprung it on them. It’s tougher budget dollars having to be stretched further. People know they’re going to be charged more but at least we’re not closed. It’s a tough time we can all weather,” he adds. “If we can generate our own revenue then we’re less dependent on the legislature.
“One thing that’s exciting,” Eagleman continues, “is the partnerships that we create by virtue of the park being a big neighbor to everybody. With the Hoosier National Forest, Camp Atturbury, Lake Monroe, Yellowwood, and all the camps, we have the biggest tract of contiguous woodland still remaining in the eastern interior low plateau. This acts as a sink for birds that migrate. It’s a source for seeds and all kinds of things. We want to work to keep this intact.”
Where does a Naturalist go when he needs a break from work? “I have favorite spots in the park. I go there to get away and rest and look and bird. It’s nice to have a park as a neighbor. Of all the unique natural areas in Indiana we’re lucky enough to be in this one.”