Preserve to open nature center

New center to permit more nature programs

Expansion: The new, 9,000-square- foot building will permit indoor educational programs at the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock.

April 22, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

The building is new, which means it instantly seems out of place, considering that nothing else on the property is less than two centuries old.

Despite the incongruity, the structure on the 232-acre Mount Pleasant Farm in Woodstock is the doorway to the past and the future and, its owners hope, will instill the public with an understanding and appreciation of the environment and nature.

That is a tall order for a structure not even 9,000 square feet and that from the outside resembles a barn, but the Howard County Conservancy is banking on the appeal of its new education center.

"We'll be able to expand our programs significantly," says Lynne Nemeth, executive director of the private, nonprofit conservancy. "The possibilities are endless."

It is not that the conservancy has been stagnant since its founding 15 years ago as a land trust. The organization manages about 1,700 acres of preserved land in Howard County and is host to 10,000 visitors annually, as well as an estimated 5,000 students.

The 300-year-old Mount Pleasant Farm, which also serves as the conservancy's headquarters, gives many visitors their first encounters with wild turkeys, red foxes, salamanders and a myriad of other animals, insects, birds, plants and trees.

"People come out here to this property and look around, and they gasp," says Nemeth. "Some children have never seen a live chicken before."

But the conservancy has never reached its full potential. "We currently are totally weather-dependent because all of the programs happen outside," Nemeth says.

She believes the new education center will change that. The center, which is being constructed on the spot where an ancient barn collapsed in the 1940s, will provide the opportunity for lectures, films and exhibitions that the lack of space has precluded.

The center will have a two-day opening -- June 3 for members, donors and dignitaries and June 4 for the public. The facility and related road improvements will cost about $1.2 million. It will be called the Gudelsky Environmental Education Center, in recognition of a $500,000 grant from the Homer and Martha Gudelsky Family Foundation.

Holly Gudelsky Stone recalls being shocked at learning that the county lacked an environmental-nature center. One day while discussing with Nemeth the conservancy's "wish list," Stone discovered that the organization hoped to build an education center.

"When I saw [that] ... I got very excited," Stone says. "It was infectious, and everybody [on the foundation] got very excited. It was a perfect match."

Her father, who was raised on a farm in Baltimore County but made his money in real estate, valued the land and instilled the concept of philanthropy, Stone said.

"He told us to take care of it, to treat the earth gently," she says.

In many respects, the center represents a coming of age for the conservancy. In conjunction with the opening, the conservancy will inaugurate several projects: The sprawling Mount Pleasant Farm will open to the public on weekends; an after-school program will be offered to students at risk; a summer camp has been developed; and other programs are being expanded.

"Our mission is preserving land and providing an environmental education," Nemeth says. "We want to educate people about stewardship.

"People aren't going away, developers aren't going away, so how do we all work together to create the best kind of products ... while preserving as much open space as possible?"

Nemeth said that open space is a quality-of-life issue.

"You're talking about cleaner air; you're talking about cleaner water; you're talking about the ability to be able to go to parks -- recreational amenities for people, being able to see the beauty of nature," she said.

Educating the public was a stipulation for receiving the Mount Pleasant Farm in 1993, when the property was bequeathed to the conservancy by Ruth and Frances Brown, the last survivors of Thomas Browne, who received a 1,000-acre land grant in 1692 for surveying the headwaters of the Patuxent River and keeping watch on the Indians in Woodstock.

The property remained in the family for eight generations until the Brown sisters died. What remains of the original land grant includes mature hardwoods, gardens, fields, streams, the farmhouse, the carriage house, blacksmith shop, bank barn, wagon shed, corn crib, smokehouse and two hen houses.

The farm and its natural habitat, Nemeth says, offer a chance to teach the public, particularly the young, about the importance of protecting the environment and nature.

"I believe we are providing to the youth in Howard County an opportunity to be outside in a way that most children aren't anymore," she says. "The county has become very urbanized, and children are very often programmed. They have their after-school activities; they have their computers; they watch TV; they do their homework; they go to their lessons.

"We get children out here who never have been to a place like this, who have never been on a hike," she said. "The only way to teach children to respect nature, to respect the earth, to think about the environment, is to give them that kind of experience. If you never go outside, how are you going to learn to love it? It's not possible."

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