- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

It's just 16 miles from the gridlock of the District, but the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel seems a world away.

Thick pine-tree forests cast shadows. Canada geese linger on a pond. Dragonflies whir around the multitudinous species of flora. Miles of roads and trails beckon.

Created in 1936 by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Patuxent Research Refuge, a program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the only national wildlife refuge established to support research. Set on land centered around the Patuxent and Little Patuxent rivers between the District and Baltimore, the refuge has grown to 12,750 acres.

The refuge has supported research on hundreds of projects, including oil-spill contamination, efforts to bring back the whooping crane (only 16 birds remained in the gene pool in the early 1940s) and the effects of forest fragmentation. It provides a rest-and-recovery area for hundreds of critically endangered creatures, is a stopping point for millions of migrating birds and protects premier fisheries.

That's all good, says wildlife biologist and education and outreach manager Nell P. Baldacchino, but it isn't enough.

"So much of [the refuge] was a deep, dark secret. People didn't know what was going on behind those fences," she says. "In the late '80s, we felt a tremendous need to share it with the public … to tell people about the wildlife research going on here at Patuxent, but also nationwide."

So in 1994, after six years of planning and a cost of $18 million, the refuge's National Wildlife Visitor Center opened.

The 40,000-square-foot center, framed by its large, interactive, 3-D "Wisdom of Wildness" exhibit, is spectacular. In addition to the exhibit space, the center contains a gift shop, bookstore and conference center. Its halls are quiet and contained, and its staff members both paid and volunteer are uncommonly friendly, helpful and enthusiastic.

The purpose of the center, Ms. Baldacchino says, is to enhance public awareness of problems affecting the planet.

"The theme is, 'You've seen the problems, you've seen what the scientists are doing to solve the problems, and then you can see what you can do to make a difference,'" she says.

"Wisdom of Wildness" comprises a series of nine display areas, including topics such as "Global Concerns," "Getting a Handle on Habitats," "Life Cycles," "In the Field" and "Choose the Future."

In a section called "What's Happening to Our Forests?" we learn that 100 acres of tropical rain forest are destroyed every minute. The "On the Brink" display features a room containing a number of frosted-plexiglass cases, each containing either a model or a stuffed carcass of an endangered species. (The taxidermied animals were not killed for the exhibit.)

One of the most striking displays in this marvelous exhibit is a dramatic diorama showing a year in the life of the gray wolf. Using 12 taxidermied wolf adults and cubs ("We put the word out to collect carcasses several years before we were to begin this display," Ms. Baldacchino says), the display depicts a pack snarling over bloodied prey and cubs playing tug-of-war with a skin.

Visitors also will enjoy the dioramas of whooping cranes, canvasback ducks and sea otters.

A viewing pod featuring spotting scopes, binoculars and radio tracking equipment sets the stage for observing wildlife through a large window overlooking Lake Redington, one of the refuge's dozens of man-made lakes.

After visitors spend a few hours enjoying the exhibit perhaps browsing the bookstore and perusing the changing wildlife art on the walls or enjoying films and special presentations often offered on the weekends it's time to move outdoors.

The visitors center offers guided, open-air tram tours of the surrounding lakes and woods. During the tours, a naturalist discusses the diversity of the flora and fauna and explains the research techniques employed at the refuge.

The refuge's annual Patuxent Wildlife Festival is also on the horizon, scheduled for Oct. 5. Visitors may want to make a special trip to enjoy the event's crafts, habitat and research tours, research displays, nature hikes and live animals.

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