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Tamarac site of $500,000, geothermal learning center

Fun with puppets: Rossman Elementary School kindergarten student Dalton Gartner pulls a frog puppet out of a tadpole puppet during a fieldtrip to Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge Thursday morning. BRIAN BASHAM/RECORD

For many families in the lakes area, the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge has provided generation after generation with opportunities to explore the outdoors — hiking, biking, kayaking, bird watching, or just communing with nature.

The Friends of Tamarac is a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to making sure that many more generations of nature lovers continue to enjoy Tamarac’s beauty — and to appreciate its value as both an environmental and cultural resource in the community.

The organization has embarked on a new project this year — to construct the Tamarac Discovery Center, an environmental education facility that is at once energy efficient and in harmony with its natural surroundings.

A fundraising campaign to garner the necessary $500,000 to construct the facility is already “about two-thirds of the way there,” says Friends of Tamarac President Don Blanding.

“We will build it, pay for it, and donate it back to the refuge,” added Ron Jenson, vice president of the Friends organization.

The aim is to have the facility paid for before they start construction, Blanding said.

Within just a little under 2,000 square feet, the Discovery Center would house a multi-purpose meeting room, storage and restrooms — but the part that the Friends are most excited about is the outdoor classroom/amphitheater “that will allow nearly 100 people to gather at a time without creating a large impact on the landscape,” according to the informational brochure.

The indoor meeting room will allow for gatherings of 45 people in a classroom setting, or 70-80 people in an open meeting setting, Jenson said.

“The building will be as close to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified as it can be,” without going through the certification process, he added.

That means the facility will be heated and cooled geothermally, and R-5 insulated against the fluctuations of Minnesota weather, among other environmentally friendly innovations incorporated into its design.

A site for the Discovery Center has already been surveyed and staked in preparation for construction, which the Friends are hoping can begin sometime in July.

“Our goal is to have the building completed by Jan. 1 — but we will not go to the bank and borrow the money,” Jenson said. “We want to have the funds in place before we do the construction.”

A ‘Path to Discovery’

The site for the Discovery Center will be within easy walking distance of the existing visitor center, with a fully handicap accessible trail between the two that partially utilizes a path already in existence between the visitor center and the refuge’s maintenance facility.

In fact, the fundraising campaign for the project is using the theme of “A Path to Discovery,” Jenson said.

Construction of the Discovery Center will be done with the aim of having as minimal an impact upon the surrounding environment as possible; only about a half-dozen trees will need to be removed to make room for the new building.

Environmental learning

Once it’s in place, the new building will be used to enhance and expand the environmental education programs already in existence at Tamarac — many of which are organized and taught by volunteers from the Friends organization.

“The programs taught out here meet Minnesota education standards,” said Refuge Manager Neil Powers. “They try to utilize a different (i.e., outdoor) learning atmosphere to reinforce the things kids are already learning in the classroom.”

Five outdoor learning stations have been set up around the refuge, with each geared toward teaching a different aspect of the refuge’s natural flora and fauna.

Friends of Tamarac volunteers contribute their time and expertise to teach these programs to visiting students from as close as Detroit Lakes and Frazee-Vergas, or as far away as Moorhead and Park Rapids.

Students from Waubun-Ogema-White Earth, Circle of Life, Perham and Lake Park-Audubon have also visited the refuge many times since the program was established eight years ago.

The first year, there were 250 area students participating in the program; this year, that number is over 3,000, and growing, Jenson said.

“It used to be that (a field trip to the refuge) was just a fun day for the students — now we want them to make it an academic day,” Jenson noted. “There has to be an educational component to it.”

“The experiences you get with the kids out here are unbelievable,” he added, noting that getting outside often allows people’s minds to open up in a different way.

He recalled one incident when a young girl took his hand and said, “Mr. Ron, I’ve never been in the woods before.”

That’s not an uncommon thing for the students who come out to Tamarac, Blanding said — but once they do experience all that the refuge has to offer, they often bring their families back to explore it further.

“My grandchildren are the fifth generation of our family to come to Tamarac,” he said. “All six of them have been out here.

“Our grandkids are learning all sorts of things about the great outdoors. They are forming healthy habits for their lifetime. They are rowing boats, paddling canoes, discovering snakes and frogs, watching dragonflies hatch, collecting morels and wild raspberries, hiking in the woods, fishing in summer and winter, and other similar activities… not all children are blessed this way.”

‘Losing touch with nature’

“Our kids are losing touch with nature,” Jenson explained. “They’re more plugged into electronics and other media than they are to their environment.”

The Friends of Tamarac are doing everything they can to change that, he added. “If we don’t…what’s going to happen to places like this (Tamarac)?”

With the environmental education programs offered at Tamarac, Powers said, “We hope to be able to foster an appreciation for wild things and wild places in future generations.”

All of the classes taught at Tamarac are also age appropriate, geared toward the grade level of the students participating, he added.

The Discovery Center will be a place to gather various groups of students that have been exploring the Refuge in one central location to summarize what they’ve learned, Powers said — in an environment that is not bound by the uncertainties of Minnesota weather.

Of course, the facility will also be open to other groups, like 4-H clubs, boys and girls clubs, and others interested in environmental education.

“All of them will be encouraged to come out here (to the Discovery Center),” Blanding said.

“This is a pretty special project,” Powers said. “To have a group like the Friends come forward and have the will and the drive to spearhead a project like this is unique.”

In fact, there are only a couple of programs similar to this one currently in existence, he added.

One of them is at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls; the other is at Minnesota Valley, by Shakopee.

“Several times we’ve had people visiting the refuge make the comment that they had the opportunity to do that (take a field trip to Tamarac Refuge when they were in grade school) — it’s becoming a legacy for our school systems in this area,” Powers added.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes

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.

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