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SUDBURY

Refuge to unveil regional center

Assabet will host expanded offerings

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / October 7, 2010

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A visitors center is opening at the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge this month to help the US Fish and Wildlife Service attract new guests, expand its environmental education programs, and better serve nature enthusiasts.

Libby Herland, manager of the Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Assabet River refuge in Sudbury and seven other sites, said the new center will be a place where people can learn about the region’s wildlife habitats.

A grand opening is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Oct. 17 at the visitors center, 690 Hudson Road in Sudbury. The Assabet refuge, which covers about 3.5 square miles extending into Hudson, Maynard, Stow, and Sudbury, has been open since 2005, and features a mixture of pine and hardwood forests, fields, and wetland areas. Activities for visitors include hiking, biking, and hunting.

The National Wildlife Refuge System consists of lands and waters set aside to conserve fish, wildlife, and plants. President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida’s Pelican Island as the first US wildlife refuge in 1903, and since then, the system has grown to more than 150 million acres at 550 sites.

Herland said there used to be a small visitors center at the nearby Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, but it was closed in 2007 to provide space for administrative offices.

In 2005, the region received $3.2 million in federal funding to construct a new visitors center for the entire Eastern Mass. complex, and the Assabet River refuge was the perfect fit, Herland said. She said it is centrally located, with plenty of space for the facility, and an active friends group willing to take on an increased role once it was constructed.

The new center will feature interactive exhibits for visitors, provide information about the refuges, offer educational programming for schoolchildren, and house a nature store staffed by the friends, with room for a community meeting space.

Betsy Griffin, a Maynard resident who serves as president of the Friends of the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, welcomes the center as a way to accommodate more visitors. She said it took years to clean up the land and remove old Army buildings. Members of the friends group helped with the work.

“Now we’re transitioning to this new phase where it allows us to invite the public in,’’ Griffin said. “We now have a base to be able to provide the kinds of programs we’d like to offer.’’

She said it also offers a way to get more supporters actively involved. Up until now, much of the work at the refuge has involved the physical labor required to maintain the site. Now, there will be a variety of options available for those who want to volunteer at the visitors center, either in the nature store or by participating in educational outreach, she said.

Expanding educational opportunities will be one of the key components of the new visitors center, according to its manager, Susan Russo. She said the region provides some programming now for Boston students and first-graders in Concord and Sudbury, but the visitors center will allow staff to hold significantly more events.

Russo said the center would develop a curriculum and likely target urban communities, such as Worcester, Lowell, Lawrence, Leominster, and Fitchburg, so those students will have an opportunity to get outside.

“Primarily, our main focus is to be a site for high-quality environmental education for local schoolchildren and inner-city kids as well,’’ Russo said.

Beyond bringing students in, Russo and Herland said, they hope the visitors center attracts families. They said the refuge is an opportunity for area residents of all ages to enjoy free, healthy activities together.

“There’s a big push to connect people with nature, particularly children, but you have to have a place to focus those efforts,’’ Herland said. “We want this to be an opportunity to educate them. Let’s bring them into the woods and help them not be afraid of nature.’’

There will be a variety of events taking place during the visitors center grand opening, including hikes, bike rides, pond exploration, and bunker tours. For a full list of events and more information about the refuge, visit www.farnwr.org.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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