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Tamarac gets ready to help kids learn

Breaking ground for the new center were volunteers and employees at Tamarac. Brian Basham/DL NEWSPAPERS

As if on cue, a pair of swans gracefully flew over and seemingly honked their approval as the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge broke ground on their new Discovery Center building Tuesday morning.

Construction on the new education building just north of the visitor center will begin next week and be completed by Sept. 1, 2014.

Friends of Tamarac Vice President Ron Jenson said the idea for an education center popped up several years ago when there was a large group of school kids visiting the refuge and it started raining during their visit.

“The kids had no place to eat their lunch, so they all piled into the visitor center,” he told a group of about 30 people gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony. “There was 60 kids sitting on the floor eating their lunch with their backpacks and they slowly took over the entire visitor center. We said, ‘this isn’t quite right for the kids to start with, and it sure isn’t right for Fish and Wildlife to lose their building like this.’ If a visitor came out, they couldn’t even get in the door.”

So the idea for an education center was hatched. According to Refuge Manager Neal Powers, the original idea was simply a picnic shelter, which grew into a metal pole building, which grew into the education center plan of today.

“The more we looked at it and the more we thought about it, why not do it the right way the first time,” Jenson said.

The building itself will consist of a large auditorium classroom that will hold 84 people in chairs, as well as two large bathrooms and mechanical and storage closets. A plaza area outside the building will feature a recessed amphitheater for teaching outdoors.

Jenson said the building will have geothermal heat and cooling “so the actual cost of running this building is going to be very minimal.”

The bid for the original design came in at $724,000, Jenson said. With making some cuts to the construction of the center, the price was brought down to $587,000.

While the Friends of Tamarac have raised their original goal of $500,000 — they have firm commitments for donations of $508,000 — their fundraising for the project continues. The hope is to raise enough money to pay for the building by the time construction is completed next September, Jenson said.

Jenson said the Discovery Center isn’t going to be a pretty building just sitting there. The space is going to be used — a lot.

“Ten years ago, if you were to look around the refuge for a classroom or a young person exploring in nature, it would have been pretty hard to find,” said Park Ranger Kelly Blackledge.

Today, 700 students visit the refuge three times a year as part of a partnership program, and 10 school districts have students that visit the refuge, she said.

“And we have more classes that want to come. So this classroom is not only going to jump start all of that outdoor learning, but also provide an opportunity for families and people of all abilities to come and experience those nature activities,” Blackledge said.

“This facility is going to provide us that next opportunity to catapult us into the future. It’s going to be the cornerstone of so many good things here at Tamarac,” Powers said.