Robinson Nature Center

Shown is the “"Life of the Forest”" exhibit at the Robinson Nature Center in Columbia. The center is celebrating its first anniversary. (Photo courtesy of Robinson Nature Center / June 29, 2012)

About 30,000 people stepped through the doors of Howard County's new nature center last year, and county officials plan to celebrate Sunday with a first birthday bash.

Since the James and Anne Robinson Nature Center opened off Cedar Lane in Columbia last September, the county has been adding programs such as field trips and a hands-on archaeological dig.

At Sunday's event, the center will offer free admission and activities, including live animal appearances, nature crafts, guided nature walks and presentations in the planetarium.

"We're really looking forward to highlighting all the wonderful things that have happened at the nature center since it opened," said program manager Meagan Leatherbury.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman calls the center his favorite place and often gives personal tours.

"It really was a labor of love for me," Ulman said, "especially for the children, that we could spark the next generation of environmentally conscious citizens."

In November, his 6-year-old daughter was the first person to hold a birthday party at the center. Since then, the center has developed birthday programs and has been host to 33 more children's parties.

The center is located on about 18 acres adjacent to 1,000 acres of preserved land in the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area.

Ulman said the county is planning to take ownership of a mill under a nearby bridge from the Maryland State Highway Administration. The county hopes to clean it up and include it in the trail system. The mill is an important component to historical exhibits at the center about the old mill town there, he said.

The mill will complement an existing Digging Up the Past program offered in collaboration with Howard Community College. Anthropology students oversee a dig where visitors help search for artifacts from the milling industry and Native American tribes. The next dig is Oct. 6.

The county is also planning to add a butterfly garden as well as a beekeeper and honey-making area.

Much of the center's success in its first year is due to its volunteers, Leatherbury said. The center has more than 125 volunteers who have logged about 5,000 total hours of service, she said.

They greet people at the doors, weed and replace plants in the native plant gardens, and host discovery days showcasing the environment.

"A lot of them really do have that interest in spreading the message of environmental education," Leatherbury said.

The center is also launching a Friends of the Nature Center group to tackle private fundraising projects. For instance, the group hopes to build a nature play space and to provide scholarships so groups from low-income Title I schools can visit the center on field trips.

Ulman says the center is an important part of the county's infrastructure, along with libraries, parks and schools.

"To have an environmental nature center that adds to the level of education for the environment and sustainability is really important," he said.

If you go

What: Robinson Nature Center Anniversary open house

When: Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

Where: Robinson Nature Center, 6692 Cedar Lane, Columbia

Details: Free and open to the public. Carpooling is recommended as parking is limited. Activities include live animal appearances, nature crafts, guided nature walks and presentations in the planetarium.

Information: 410-313-0400. A complete schedule of events is located at howardcountymd.gov/RNCOpenHouse.htm