Desert Companion

Object lesson: Nature’s pawn shop


Photography by Brent Holmes

Cool rocks, bugs, and a giant clam — kids collect and learn at Springs Preserve’s innovative Nature Exchange

Chris SakmarSave the whales. Save the rainforests. Save the pandas. The slogans sound good — but to a kid who’s never even seen the ocean or a rainforest, they might not mean much.

“If a kid only hears about dams collapsing in Northern California and natural disasters without actually experiencing nature, then asking them to save nature becomes akin to saving Frankenstein,” says Chris Sakmar, a staff naturalist at the Springs Preserve who oversees the Preserve’s Nature Exchange. At the Exchange, Sakmar is working bit by bit to ensure that nature becomes a living, breathing thing that children (and adults) want to protect.

The Nature Exchange is exactly what it sounds like, a place where you can exchange nature for nature. The first one opened in Canada in 1984, and today there are nine across the U.S. and Canada, including the one at Springs Preserve. The idea is simple: You bring in a natural object and earn points based on what you know about it, plus its condition and rarity. You redeem your points for other earthy accessories. Bring in a piece of gypsum, leave with some agate. Or you can save your points for a more coveted find, like an elusive whelk egg cluster. Visiting and trading is free.

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The local database keeps track of approximately 5 million points amassed by traders. In addition to cashing in on curiosity, traders have been known to use their points to get gifts for parents. “It’s like Pawn Stars for nature,” Sakmar says.

But the Nature Exchange isn’t about transactions. It’s here to foster education, which is why you can also earn points for answering trivia questions or bringing in a report about a topic in nature. Some of Sakmar’s favorites are on display. A recent report on tigers by a preschooler features a loosely drawn catlike creature and the statement, “TIGERS EAT MEET.” (That earned the eager youngster 300 points, which included 100 bonus points for making Sakmar chuckle.) 

If you’re stumped about an object, the staff works with you to identify and learn about it. Sakmar is typically a quick read, able to survey a collection of natural artifacts and pronounce with Holmesian accuracy, “I see you recently vacationed in Oregon.” But he has been stymied, too. When that happens, a stack of reference books and knowing where the item was found usually provide the necessary clues.

And so, with every rock, fossil, dead insect, leaf and shell they trade, Sakmar and the Nature Exchange turn city kids into budding nature-lovers at a time when the planet needs all the love it can get.


1.Minerals of Nevada: The staff scours the 500-plus pages of this ultimate guide to minerals when they’re stumped. The tome includes every mineral found in the state, along with where to find them, and essays about the science and history of minerals. A review on Google Books insists that after reading it, you will immediately want to go rock hounding.


2. Fish Fossils (10,000-25,000 points) While there are no ichthyosaur fossils on display, there are 300-million-year-old trilobite specimens. There is also a collection of 80-million-year-old fish fossils that are collected and traded by a local mom-daughter team. Every year, the amateur paleontologists travel to Green River, Wyoming, in search of these fish fossils to bring home and trade.


3. Giant Clam (2,000,000 points) Weighing in at around 85 pounds, this half of a bivalve is the Exchange’s most “pricey” object — and its most coveted. “A lot of people are saving for it,” Sakmar says. The Exchange received the shell from a clam rehabilitation center in Florida. A Springs Preserve employee was in touch with the center, and when the clam died, the center offered to donate the shell to the Exchange. All they had to cover was shipping.


4.Piñon Pine Cone (10-30 points) Because they are easy to find, pine cones are considered the gateway item to becoming an active trader. With just a glance, Sakmar names the tree, and begins a monologue on the intrigue of the cone. Pine cones can be male or female, and usually the smaller the tree the bigger the cone, and vice versa. Some of the smallest cones at the Exchange are produced by the giant sequoia, but Sakmar thinks the piñon is a useful specimen for education: “We can talk to kids about how its seeds were a staple food for people in this area in the past.”


5. Palo Verde Root Borer Beetle (300-400 points) Bugs are filed into slim drawers for safekeeping, and one of the largest drawer-dwellers is this 3-inch longhorn beetle. The critter begins life underground as a large, white grub, and after it surfaces,  it only lives for a couple of weeks. They can be seen flocking to the light of lampposts on the Strip, but the ones at the Exchange are most often found dead around the house. “I have to reassure people they don’t need to burn their house down,” Sakmar says.


6. Iron Pyrite Cube (6,000-12,000 points) If you thought that Plato’s talk about forms was a bit harebrained, behold this perfect, golden cube. You might think that the glistening geometric ideal was shaped by hand, but it was not. The cube can occur naturally thanks to the molecular structure of pyrite. According to Sakmar, it happens when the pyrite grows in a softer mineral, such as gypsum.

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