The Intersection of Recreation and Education 

Van de Graff Park Eco Trail Sign

Desktop News | April 2023

In the heart of Northport, Alabama, a unique community effort has given rise to the Van de Graaff Park Eco Trail, a stunning example of how local organizations can come together to promote conservation and environmental education. Multiple groups, including The University of Alabama’s Conservation Biology Society, Rotary Club of Tuscaloosa Morning and PARA, joined forces to create this trail that now stands as a testament to the power of collaboration and inclusivity. 

The UA Conservation Biology Society played a vital role in bringing the Eco Trail to life. Their research and design prompts for the interpretive signs, along with UA Professor Craig Wedderspoon’s creation of stunning 3-D sculptures, enhance the Eco Trail’s educational value. The partnership provides visitors with an immersive and interactive learning experience that connects them to nature and promotes environmental awareness. 

“The intended point of this project is to get people more connected to nature and to encourage people to use that area,” said Thomas Franzem, former UA Conservation Biology Society President. 

The Eco Trail at Van de Graaff Park is an outdoor learning experience that values inclusivity. Its unique approach integrates art sculptures with educational and natural components, creating a sensory-rich environment that is accessible to all visitors. By incorporating interpretative elements into the trail signage, the Eco Trail ensures that individuals with visual impairments or other disabilities can fully engage with the natural surroundings. This inclusive design not only adds value to the park’s recreational and educational offerings, but it also promotes sensitivity to nature and encourages a connection to the environment for all visitors, regardless of ability. The Van de Graaff Park’s commitment to inclusivity makes the Eco Trail a valuable resource for all who seek to explore and appreciate the beauty of nature. 

Interpretive Reptiles Sign

“The sculptures provide a tactile interaction with the signs,” said Kevin Shaw, current UA Conservation Biology Society President. “And that just makes a more inclusive learning environment for anyone that may have a disability.” 

The Grand Opening ceremony, held on April 4, 2023, was a celebration of community collaboration and conservation efforts. Representatives from The University of Alabama’s Conservation Biology Society, PARA, local organizations and the community came together to commemorate the completion of the trail. The event showcased the hard work, dedication and passion of all involved in the project, from the research and design of the interpretive signs to the creation of the 3-D sculptures. Visitors were able to experience the trail, appreciate the natural surroundings and interact with the educational signage and sculptures. The ceremony demonstrated the effectiveness of community partnerships in enhancing public spaces and promoting environmental awareness. 

“This is an intersection between recreation and education, which is something that drives our community and that’s important for us for many years to come,” said Michael Crady, PARA’s Chief Financial Officer, during the grand opening. “We’re proud of this because it really signifies community partnership, whether that be with the University, Tuscaloosa Morning Rotary or many others. We’re extremely proud to partner with everyone for this project.” 

For more information on The Van de Graaff Park, visit