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Tamarac prepares to open new environmental education center

The new Discovery Center at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge is set to make its official debut at a grand opening celebration on Saturday, June 27 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. DL NEWSPAPERS/Vicki Gerdes

Every year, between 3,000-5,000 area school kids have an opportunity to experience hands-on environmental learning when they visit the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.

Friends of Tamarac President Ron Jenson (left) and Tamarac Visitor’s Center Manager Kelly Blackledge have been working hard to get it ready for the public. DL NEWSPAPERS/Vicki Gerdes The new Discovery Center has many state-of-the-art amenities, such as an outdoor amphitheater. DL NEWSPAPERS/Vicki Gerdes The new Discovery Center has many state-of-the-art amenities, such as an energy efficient building that uses a geothermal heating and cooling system, ventilation and lighting systems that turn on and off via motion sensors, a drinking fountain that includes an automated water bottle filling station. DL NEWSPAPERS/Vicki Gerdes The new Discovery Center has many state-of-the-art amenities, such as a small kitchenette. DL NEWSPAPERS/Vicki Gerdes The “Path to Discovery” looped trail lets visitors get right out into nature and explore a series of hands-on environmental learning stations. DL NEWSPAPERS/Vicki Gerdes

Refuge staff joins forces with volunteers from the non-profit Friends of Tamarac to offer programs that expand on and enhance what the students have already learned in the classroom, utilizing their natural surroundings.

“Our programs all meet Minnesota education standards,” says Kelly Blackledge, Tamarac Visitor’s Center manager.

And now, with the opening of the new Tamarac Discovery Center, the Refuge’s environmental education programs will have a permanent home.

Area residents will be able to view the building and its picturesque surroundings at the Discovery Center’s official grand opening celebration, set for Saturday, June 27, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“We’re busy putting on the finishing touches for our grand opening,” says Friends of Tamarac President Ron Jenson, noting that considerable landscaping work on the area surrounding the building has been done over the past few weeks.

“We’ve been working on this for so long, we can’t wait to show it off,” Blackledge added.

The Discovery Center has been in the works since 2009, when the original concept was first brought before the Friends of Tamarac board of directors for discussion.

“That’s how long we’ve been dreaming of this,” said Blackledge.

“We did a feasibility study to see if the public was really interested in environmental education, and supporting a project like this,” Jenson said. “Eighty-nine percent of our respondents were in favor of it — and the donations that came in verified those results.”

The bulk of the financing for the 2,000 square foot building was paid for through the fundraising efforts of the Friends of Tamarac, with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (which manages the entire NWR system) funding much of the external work, such as landscaping, signage and sidewalks.

“We had over 300 donors step forward, from individuals to corporate entities, public and private organizations,” Jenson said, adding that the size of the donations also varied greatly.

“What really sets this project apart from other infrastructure projects of its kind is that it combines multiple levels of partnerships,” said Neil Powers, Refuge manager. “It’s private individuals and businesses coupled with public entities like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and nonprofits like the Friends of Tamarac, all working together to connect people with the outdoors, and nature.”

The Friends of Tamarac undertook the initial work of fundraising and supervising construction for the Discovery Center, enabling them to bid and contract “almost exclusively” with local vendors rather than having to go through a federal bidding process, said Jenson.

“We saved Fish & Wildlife a considerable amount of money,” he added.

Now that the project is essentially complete, the Friends are in the process of “turning the keys over to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,” which will take on the responsibility of maintaining the facility, Jenson said.

Powers said that Blackledge and Jenson worked in tandem to guide the project through the design, bidding and construction phases, working directly with the contractors and the various organizations involved. “It’s been a real team effort,” he added.

And while the Friends have only raised about $580,000 of the $605,000 needed for construction costs, the Friends have worked out an agreement with Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corporation (MMCDC) for a no interest, 10-year loan to pay off the $25,000 balance.

“It is our intent to totally pay it off long before (the 10 years are up),” Jenson said.

Besides the building, which can provide at-table seating for about 50 elementary students, or row seating for about 70, there is also a small outdoor amphitheater adjacent to the building which can provide seating for up to 50 kids as well.

There is also a looped trail, dubbed the “Path to Discovery,” that extends out from the building’s back door into the surrounding woods. There will be three activity stations spread out along the trail, with the amphitheater and the building itself providing two more for a total of five activity stations available for students to take part in true hands-on learning.

And even the paved, handicap-accessible path leading from the parking area up to the building’s entrance was designed with the “discovery” theme in mind, Blackledge said.

“As you walk up the path to the Discovery Center you’ll be discovering some native wildflowers and wildlife-friendly plants,” she said.

Once the students arrive, Jenson said, their first activity is usually what is referred to as the “Tamarac watch,” when they are taken outside and asked to simply listen quietly, observe their surroundings and write down what they see, hear, taste, touch, etc.

“There are plenty of examples available of how being out in nature can change students’ behavior and their openness to learning,” he added, noting that there are frequently some surprises contained in the students’ observation journals.

Other activities can include GPS tracking and measuring the girth of trees (which can help determine their age).

“Some of our activities also address environmental literacy benchmarks,” Blackledge said. “The ultimate goal is to develop good stewards of our natural resources.”

Three area school districts — Detroit Lakes, Waubun-Ogema-White Earth and Perham — are considered “partnership schools,” Jenson said, which means that they have made the commitment to come out to Tamarac three times a year, spring, summer and fall, to observe and record data from the various activities so they can compare their seasonal findings.

With five activities included in each session, that means the students will gather 15 different sets of data to compare, he added.

“Right now, we’re focusing on kindergarten and third grade,” Jenson said, but added that “the opportunities for learning are unlimited. We can pick and choose the activities to fit the subject material on a given day.”

And while currently, only the building, amphitheater and paved path leading up to the Discovery Center are handicap accessible, the goal is to eventually make it accessible to students of all abilities, Blackledge added.

“There was a young special needs girl that came here who said she’d never been out in the woods before,” Jenson said, noting that she “had a smile from ear to ear” as she said it.

“That’s our theme — connecting kids with nature,” he added.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454