Fifty years ago, Audubon Canyon Ranch embarked on a journey to create nature-based environmental education for Bay Area elementary school students.

On 1,000 acres overlooking the Bolinas Lagoon in Marin County, we began training a covey of volunteers to guide small groups of children in field and classroom exploration.

Over the years, we expanded the School Program from Marin into Sonoma. By now, 1,300 enthusiastic docents have led nature education and appreciation activities that touched more than 250,000 third, fourth and fifth graders from 2,500 classes.

Sprouting from our beginnings, we expanded ACR’s reach and depth. We added more student programs—overnight, junior naturalist, lion ambassador, educational choir and high school conservation science intensives.

We’re excited to share some of our many stories over the next year.

We’ve Always Known: Kids and Adults Thrive in Nature

by Gwen Heistand, Martin Griffin Preserve Manager/Resident Biologist
Interviews transcribed by Natasha Lekach, Education Program Manager

After a concerted effort in the 1960s to preserve heronries and vernal pools, redwood canyons and waterfalls, riparian corridors and oak woodlands, a community grew.

Its purpose was to gift children with passion, curiosity and place. The program is so rooted in land and kinship that volunteers from every decade still actively hike with school kids.

Meet five of them, in their own words.

Meeting Students Where They Are

Meeting Students Where They Are

by Natasha Lekach, Education Program Manager, Martin Griffin Preserve
For 50 years, our school program has provided students with tools to deeply engage with all of nature’s wonders.... Today we are applying these tools and techniques to our Nature Where You Are content.

Evolution of Our Education Programs: 1970–2020

1962 Audubon Canyon Ranch is established to protect a sensitive West Marin heron and egret nesting colony from logging.

1964 Local Audubon chapter members welcome visitors to view the heronry at the Bolinas Lagoon Preserve, launching the ACR Hosts program.

1967 Clarin Zumwalt is hired as ACR’s first naturalist and begins leading two tours daily for Bay Area classes of up to 30 fourth and fifth graders.

1968 The 234-acre South Canyon is purchased for use as an environmental education center. Now called Volunteer Canyon, it houses residential program classrooms, staff housing, offices and a workshop.

1970 The ACR Docent Program is born with docent training funded by the Junior League of San Francisco. Docent-led programs for schoolchildren and public visitors begin at Bolinas Lagoon Preserve (renamed Martin Griffin Preserve in 2010 to honor one of ACR’s founders).

1972 ACR Docents begin conducting their own training program.

1978 David Bouverie donates a major portion of his ranch for education and preservation, forming the Bouverie Preserve, ACR’s second main site.

1982 The first docent class at Bouverie Preserve graduates and school groups begin to arrive.

1986 The old hay barn at the Bouverie Preserve is converted into the Gilman Hall Education Center.The first class of volunteer naturalist Ranch Guides graduate from training at Martin Griffin Preserve.

1994 ACR’s Juniper Program (junior naturalists)
is launched at the Bouverie Preserve.

1996 The Osher Volunteer Center, including a natural history library and volunteer office, is completed in Martin Griffin Preserve’s Picher Canyon.

2001 The Overnight Program at Martin Griffin Preserve is launched, offering under-resourced schools an intensive, educational nature experience.

2002 The Quercus Quire, a group of singing volunteers from our preserves, receives the Community Service Award to Schools from the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County. The honor is for bringing an ecological stewardship message to 2,700 schoolchildren each year.

2006 The Bouverie Preserve Docents receive the 2006 Outstanding Environmental Program award from the Sonoma County Conservation Council and the Sierra Club. Certificates of recognition are received from the California State Assembly, the California State Senate and Rep. Lynn Woolsey.

2009 In memory of Phyllis Ellman, the David Bouverie Scholarship Fund is established for Junipers pursuing higher education in science or
the environment.

2010 The Martin Griffin Preserve Docents receive the 2010 California State Assembly Certificate of Recognition for Exceptional Outdoor Education Program for Youth signed by Rep. Jared Huffman.

2016 ACR launches the Conservation Science Intensive summer program. The hands-on, land-based training/mentoring program is for young women, taught by ACR’s female science and education staff.

2017 Mountain Lion Ambassadors, a subset of ACR docents, bring a unique 90-minute science presentation into schools, sharing research from ACR’s Living with Lions study to increase understanding and acceptance of our wild neighbors.

2017 Gwen Heistand, Director of Education, receives the Terwilliger Environmental Award for making a significant difference in environmental education.

2020 Responding to COVID-19-related shelter-at-home orders, ACR education staff launches Nature Where You Are, online teaching resources for educators and families that include videos filmed by docents in their own backyards.
Timeline sourced from ACR’s 55 year history available at and “Sharing Wonder: Zumie and the spirit of Education at ACR,” by Len & Patti Blumin, Bulletin 19, Fall 1996.
Photos: A. Battaglene, L. Blumin, J. Cacciatore, J. Childress, W. Coy, P. Green, J. Knight, N. Warnock, N. Young, and other ACR volunteers.