Refuge a place for scientists, nature lovers

August 08, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Remember Silent Spring? Rachel Carson's passionate 1962 book made environmental awareness a mainstream concern by showing the lasting consequences of pesticide use.

Carson relied on research conducted at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Anne Arundel County, says Nell Baldacchino, who oversees public education and outreach centers at the refuge. "She read all the research reports," Baldacchino said.

That's not surprising, since Patuxent is the only one of more than 500 National Wildlife Refuges in the country specifically created to support wildlife research.

"Research truly goes on all over the country," said Baldacchino. "But this was the only refuge in the refuge system that was established with that as its purpose."

The refuge system, which dates to 1903, protects, restores and manages habitats throughout the country.

The Patuxent Research Refuge, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive order in 1936, originally included 2,670 acres and has grown to 12,750 acres. It is host to more than 100 scientists working on dozens of research projects related to conserving the environment and protecting wildlife.

Research includes tracking the migration patterns of birds and studying pollution, ecosystems and invasive species. Ponds, forests and meadows have been created so that many environments are available for study, a boon to the scientists and wild creatures, as well as to the park's visitors.

But for non-scientist visitors of all ages, the refuge is a hidden gem, an ideal place for an outing that may lead to encounters with deer, beaver, bald eagles or tiny frogs. More than 200 species of birds live on the refuge.

The refuge is divided into three major areas: the North Tract, which offers trails, interpretive programs and hunting and fishing; the Central Tract, where most of the science takes place; and the South Tract, home to the National Wildlife Visitor Center and more trails. The North Tract and visitor center are open to the public.

Fun for kids

The visitor center, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is now 10 years old, but it still offers plenty to amuse even the youngest, most boredom-prone child. It's one of the largest science and environmental education centers run by the Department of the Interior, according to the refuge's Web site and literature.

Large exhibits with flashing displays tackle such serious topics as ocean pollution, overpopulation and global warming. Exhibits behind glass show five habitats, including the Chesapeake Bay, a Hawaiian rainforest and prairies in the Dakotas. Visitors can manipulate dials and push buttons to make things light up or change within the exhibit.

One room is filled with life-size models of gray wolves, whooping cranes, sea otters and canvasback ducks in various stages of their life cycles. Children can watch a scene with baby wolf cubs nuzzling their mother.

The whooping crane exhibit is of particular significance, as Patuxent is home to a program that has helped bring the animals back from the brink of extinction. Unfortunately, the birds are not generally available for viewing, as they don't like human attention, says Baldacchino.

Another room at the visitor center has telescopes, binoculars and sound equipment trained on a nearby wetlands.

Touring the park

The center also is the starting point for 40-minute tram rides that take visitors through the park with a guide who points out creatures along the way and discusses habitats and the work of the scientists at the refuge. The tours operate every day during the summer, and weekends in spring and fall, weather permitting. The price is $1 for children and $3 for adults.

Other scheduled activities include bird walks, puppet shows for youngsters, hikes and summer mini-camps on nature topics for children 5 to 13.

The refuge has grown and changed names several times over the years.

In the latest incarnation, which dates to 1996, the Patuxent Research Refuge and the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center have become two separate entities, with the research conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey and the refuge run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But some things haven't changed.

Cash Lake, which was created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936, remains a popular attraction - for birds, fishermen and children who hope to see frogs along the lily pads on the marshy edges of the water.

The National Wildlife Visitor Center is open daily except major holidays from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free, though tram rides and some programs require a small fee. The center is at 10901 Scarlet Tanager Loop in Laurel. The phone number is 301-497-5760. The Web site is http://patuxent.fws.gov/.

More nature

The Patuxent Research Refuge is not the only place to enjoy nature in Anne Arundel County. Here are a few other spots:

Sandy Point State Park: 1100 East College Parkway, Annapolis. 410-974-2149; www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/southern/sandypoint.html. A sandy beach in the shadow of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center: 647 Contees Wharf Road, Edgewater, 443-482-2218. This 2,800-acre research center on the West and Rhode rivers has nature trails with interpretive panels and exhibits.

Quiet Waters Park: 600 Quiet Waters Park Road, Annapolis. 410-222-1777; www.aacounty. org. Formal gardens, bike trails, boat rentals and a playground are some of the attractions at this county park.

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