Excavate it, and they will build classroom

• That’s the belief of  Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge staff and its friends group


Special to the Star News

The government shut down dashed the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge’s plans for the annual fall festival, but it hasn’t wiped away hopes for a new environmental classroom building.

After enduring the 16-day shutdown, Refuge staff and friends of the wildlife refuge remain focused on the project and are planning an informational open house and tour of the site for Nov. 23.

Sue Hix, a longtime supporter of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, said she is feeling cautiously optimistic about the chances of the project proceeding now that the excavation work has been completed at the refuge for the planned center.

Refuge personnel are hoping to begin construction next year, and then add a visitors center and new refuge staff headquarters in the years following if funds become available.

Steve Karel
Steve Karel

The headquarters building now sits along the north side of Sherburne County Road 9 approximately 5 miles west of Highway 169. The site of the new building is on a hill south of the same road a few tenths of a mile west of the headquarters.

The site is south of the old school house that was used for many years for refuge activities and was condemned in 2010 because of safety issues.

A team of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service professionals from several wildlife refuges carried out the excavation work for the education building. The site work included constructing an entrance/exit road, parking areas and a large gravel building pad.

Steve Karel (pronounced Karl) said that the refuge will seek bids for the classroom building construction, with the hope that federal funding will become available.  If the coming year’s budget is adequate, construction could begin next spring.

Refuge staff and the its volunteer support group, known as Friends of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, have been seeking funding for about 15 years to build a structure that would have a classroom, visitors center and new headquarters, Hix said.

It is not known if condemnation of the old schoolhouse hastened refuge personnel to excavate for the building site. But Karel and staff members note that the schoolhouse had been a hub for refuge events, meetings and gatherings for more than 30 years. The Friends group paid for an evaluation to see if the old schoolhouse could qualify to be on the National Register of Historic Places, but it did not qualify.Sherburne Rendering

Hix said she has already felt some excitement that the new classroom building will overlook Schoolhouse Pool, one of the refuge’s water impoundments.

Hix related how she and others at the Friends’ business meeting in August visited the excavation site. The sun was starting to set and when those in attendance looked out at the Schoolhouse Pool and the site, the flood of emotion was palpable, she said.

“It was beautiful,” she said. “It made us feel it really is the right place (to put the planned building). …The breath was taken away for some of us who were quietly enjoying the scene and imagining what (the building) would look like.”

And after working so long and hearing so much about possible federal funding for the construction during the past dozen or so years and then not seeing the funding come through, some in the group wondered, “Can this really be,” she said. “We don’t want to get too excited and have hopes dashed again.”

Hix said that at one point in 2009 she had understood the chances of getting “stimulus funds” for the building was 95 to 98 percent. But with the excavation completed for the site, the chances of funding to at least construct the classroom building “is the most promising yet,” she said.

Hix said her hopes are bolstered by what she calls the commitment by the regional Fish & Wildlife Service officials to make the building project happen. If they weren’t committed, the excavation work wouldn’t have happened now, Hix said, calling it a “huge step forward.”

“When you get disappointed so many times, you need a boost, and that (standing at the completed excavation site) was a boost,” Hix added.

The excavation work was accomplished by maintenance workers from the Sherburne Refuge and several other refuges sharing equipment and work time. Fish & Wildlife Service engineers are also assisting by engineering the mechanical design for the classroom building so that adding on the other structures later will fit without redoing connections, Karel said.

The classroom building will be approximately 40 feet by 70 feet and will be designed so the visitor center and headquarters can easily be added on, according to Karel.

There was a recent mechanical engineering kickoff meeting where the electrical and mechanical components were discussed and final design work will be completed in the next couple months.

“I think the project will continue on,” Karel said. “Friends of Sherburne have been trying to help with fundraising, such as for the amenities for the classroom.”

Information on the project and a site tour will be offered as part of a Friends of Sherburne/Refuge Open House on Saturday.

About the open house

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23

Where: Refuge Headquarters and nearby trailheads

Cost: Free and open to public

Activities include:

• Wildlife Poker Run, 10 a.m. to noon. (More on that later)

• Book Signing and Chat with Stan Tekiela, author and nature photographer, 1:30-3:30 p.m. Bring your own books or buy one at the nature store.

• Food catered by Firehouse BBQ – all day.

• Shop for the holidays at the Eagle’s Nest Nature Store, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. – 10 percent discount for members.

• Bid on gift items at the Friends’ silent auction, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

• Kids crafts and face painting, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.