Howard County residents in the mood to visit a nature center have to drive somewhere else - there isn't a single one in the burgeoning suburb. But before long, it could have three.
As the Howard County Conservancy prepares to build a long-envisioned environmental education building on its Woodstock farm, county officials are seriously discussing the idea of similar centers at the future Blandair Regional Park in east Columbia and the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area in west Columbia.
The blossoming interest is a bit of a surprise for the conservancy, whose staff expects construction to begin in the fall and finish next year, but leaders there say they are not upset to have company. Nearly 50,000 children attend the local public school system, a large market for nature center trips.
"I can see us all working together," said Lynne Nemeth, the nonprofit group's executive director. "It wouldn't make any sense for us to think of each other as competition.
"The more development we have here," she added, "the more potential conflict we have with wildlife, with having to deal with air pollution and water pollution. So it's only going to be a good thing for all of us to learn more about it."
Each site is a sizable slice of green in a boomtown county, which grew almost sevenfold in the past 40 years - from 36,000 residents to more than 250,000.
The conservancy's home is the 232-acre Mount Pleasant property on Route 99. Blandair, a 300-acre farm split by Route 175, sits in Long Reach and Oakland Mills villages. The 1,050-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, a heavily forested nature preserve, runs between Routes 108 and 32 along the east edge of River Hill.
Joyce M. Kelly, a trustee with the Middle Patuxent Environmental Foundation, which helps oversee the county-owned land, figures the different features of the properties would give each center its own twist.
"Development hasn't stopped in Howard County - the need is there," she said. "It's really important for kids to get an appreciation for the natural world around them."
Kenneth M. Alban, the administrator for capital projects and park planning, said the county has long been interested in building and running a nature center on the huge preserve, where children can study the Middle Patuxent River as well as forests and meadows. It is on the budget wish list for construction in about three years, at a cost of a little more than $1.4 million.
The National Audubon Society is interested in teaming with the county on the Blandair facility, depending on the final plan for other park uses. The group, which wants to open 1,000 nature education centers across the country by 2020, is considering the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area as an option.
"Howard County has the capacity - in terms of kids - to support probably half a dozen centers," said Dave Pardoe, a Columbia resident who is on the National Audubon Society's board of directors. "But I don't think it would have the capacity to financially support a half a dozen separate centers."
Karen Learmouth, the public school system's coordinator of elementary science, is looking forward to seeing three. "We certainly would want to cooperate with all of them," she said.