Local parks take relational approach to fighting climate change

December 1, 2022

This October, Jan McGowan, interpretive naturalist for St. Joseph County Parks, joined the center for the Signs of the Times discussion series which connects campus and community partners around the theme of leadership in justice and hope. Her talk, titled “Parks as Islands of Opportunity: Stewardship, Innovation and Public Service,” addressed how the park system serves as a means of education about natural spaces. The series is one of the ways the center seeks to engage community organizations in conversations around justice issues impacting the South Bend area. 

McGowan has had a lifelong love of nature and ecology. She first volunteered with the Audubon Society when she moved to the area 30 years ago. In 2004, around the time her kids went to school, she started looking for a part-time position and was excited to take a role for St. Joseph County Parks where she has worked since. Her love for her vocation comes through clearly. “Each day I get to make a really good experience for someone. I get to give a gift.” Working with people is a central part of her job. As an interpretive naturalist, McGowan’s role is built around communication and connection. “I have to communicate in a way that makes people engaged and interested, to help them see things that they didn’t before.” 

For McGowan and the St. Joseph County Parks, creating access to the parks and helping people build relationships with natural areas is a way to fight climate degradation. She noted that by enjoying time in nature and learning more about it, people are more likely to make changes in their personal lives to reduce the impact of climate change. This is one reason the parks have made an effort to create ease of access to their spaces and even beyond. McGowan noted one such program, Tales to Trails, where park staff read stories and lead nature programming in area schools several times before the class takes a field trip to a local park. Other initiatives include funding for groups and free public events. 

There are also a number of ways the parks themselves seek to preserve and enhance the benefits of nature. Some examples McGowan gave include the maintenance of the river floodplain at St. Patrick’s County Park, protection of the wetlands at Baugo County Park, and providing care and space for the shrinking population of pollinators. Through protection, education, and access, McGowan believes that the parks can effect change. “You have to be a hopeful person to love nature, because the natural spaces are under constant assault,” McGowan said. “Educating and bringing people to nature is a hopeful act, creating relationships with parks creates hope that people will turn around and be stewards of nature.” 

The Signs of the Times series will continue in February 2023. Learn more at

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