New nature center enhances education programs, exhibits at Lake Roland Park

Shannon Davis lifts Cornelia, a three-foot-long albino corn snake, from its terrarium. As the snake flicks its red forked tongue and wraps itself around her arm, Davis, the head park ranger at Lake Roland Park, explains that Cornelia was rescued by workers at a construction site.

Placing the snake back in its enclosure, Davis then cradles a three-inch hissing cockroach in her palm, explaining that children, in particular, like the cockroaches. "They love the grossness of it."


Cornelia and the unnamed cockroach are part of a menagerie of 12 animals housed at the Lake Roland Nature and Environmental Education Center, a new 2,594-square-foot facility that will open to the public on Thursday. The center, which overlooks Lake Roland dam, can accommodate up to 230 people.

It takes a lot of time, talent and treasure to keep the grounds and gardens of Hampton National Historic Site looking beautiful. With that in mind, a group of local garden clubs had organized a new benefit, called "Beauty in Bloom," to raise money to restore and maintain the landscape of Towson's only national park and the ancestral home of the Ridgelys, a leading Baltimore County family.

"Baltimore County saw there was something missing to hold year-round programming [in], especially during the winter months," said Elise Butler, vice president of the Lake Roland Nature Council, a nonprofit organization that helps administer Lake Roland in cooperation with the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks. "The nature center was the next logical step."


Construction of the $1.4 million nature center, which began in 2015, was funded through state, county and nonprofit resources, including grants and charitable donations. It is the seventh nature center in Baltimore County.

In addition to the live animals, the center is home to several animals that have undergone taxidermy — a fawn, sea gull, Red-headed Woodpecker, Great horned owl, Scarlet Tanager, Bobwhite quail, nesting wood ducks, all of which are native to the park — along with a library, classrooms, offices, meeting spaces and restrooms.

Prior to the construction of the center, the animals were housed in the ranger station, a converted restroom. Due to the inadequate space, the rangers had to limit indoor participation in workshops. They also had to hold the majority of their programs outside.

The new facility will allow the park to expand popular programs previously held outdoors, such as the holiday wreath making workshop and the winter break camp for kids, Davis said.


Other winter activities, such as the international bird count, held in February, will benefit from the center. Participants can come inside in between spotting birds. "This year we have a place where people can get warm," Davis said.

The Loch Raven Fishing Center will close at the end of October this year, a month earlier than in years past

Although the park has covered, outdoor pavilions, having a secure, indoor space also will allow visitors to take shelter during lightning storms, said Jeffrey Budnitz, treasurer of the Lake Roland Nature Council.

Providing enhanced, indoor programming, is part of the mission of Lake Roland Park, which is managed and maintained by Baltimore County, and is leased from Baltimore City on a 100-year agreement. Closed for two years for extensive enhancements undertaken by the county, Lake Roland reopened as a Baltimore County nature park in October 2011.

Having a large, handicapped-accessible facility will also help the park expand programs for people with disabilities. Before construction of the center, the number of patients from the Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital who use wheelchairs and visited the old ranger station was limited to 11. "Our handicap access is much more improved," said Davis. "It's less claustrophobic"

In addition to children's programming, adults will also benefit from the new center. Popular activities such the nature book club, as well as evening classes, can now be held. Davis is particularly enthusiastic that the Master Naturalist Program, a 60-hour course run in conjunction with the University of Maryland Extension, can now be expanded.

"We used to hold the program in a tent," Davis said.

Other programs that will benefit from the center include the Trails Over Truancy Program, which brings Baltimore City middle school students to Lake Roland for classroom environmental activities and field trips.

The county has invested significant resources in Lake Roland, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said.

A study by a Hopkins postdoc proves that bats and other animals don't cock their heads to be charming. They're enhancing their ability to hear and interpret sounds from the world around them.

"Lake Roland was really a diamond in the rough when we added it to our county park system," he said. "With this new $1.4 million nature center, we have now invested more than $7 million to transform it into a very accessible park that showcases nature at its finest."

Starting from scratch

Centered on Lake Roland, in the Jones Falls Valley, Lake Roland Park encompasses 500 acres of wetlands, meadows, and mature hardwood forests. The park was part of an 18th century land grant from Baltimore to several Maryland families. Lake Roland was formed in the 1850s as a reservoir for Baltimore City.

In 1992, most of the park was declared a National Historic District in recognition of its historic elements, including its Greek revival pump house and dam, and structures from the Susquehanna & Baltimore Railroad (later, the Northern Central Railroad).

When the county took over the park in from Baltimore City in 2009, it was in disrepair.

"In 2011 we started from scratch," Davis said. "We've been adding activities as we've gone along."

Among the many improvements were construction of a boardwalk from the Falls Road light rail station to the park, construction of a picnic pavilion, off-leash dog park, and playground, and the establishment of nearly seven miles of volunteer maintained hiking trails.

"We're one of the few parks in the nation that has a light rail going right to it," Davis said. "It's not very often that you can take public transportation right to a camp site."

Attendance at Lake Roland Park has jumped from 42,000 visitors in 2011 to 315,000 so far this year.

Park officials say they expect the new center to draw even more visitors.

Butler likens the evolution of Lake Roland to New York City's celebrated High Line, a linear park built in Manhattan on an elevated section of a disused railroad spur.

She envisions the deck of the nature center as a stage for outdoor performances.

Future plans also include landscaping the center with indigenous plants and the construction of interpretive kiosks along the park's trails for people with disabilities.

"This has been a very interesting way that this park has evolved," Butler said. "It's going to be interesting how the nature center will be used."

"What you see when you come into the park is joy," Davis added. "I didn't see this five years ago."

This story has been updated. An earlier version had an inaccurate cost amount of the new center.