Nature center to open in Carroll Co. Volunteers provided money, time, energy


If you visit the new nature center on the hill, you will see #F bluebirds, turtles and honeybees. You will walk along a nature trail, gaze at the stars and look into the eyes of a black bear.

Bear Branch Nature Center is a place to learn, enjoy and relax. It opens Saturday at Hashawha Environmental Appreciation Center, north of Westminster on Route 97.

The center sits on a hill overlooking rolling farmland, wooded areas and a pond. It's so quiet you will hear the birds sing.

You'll also see the people work: Bear Branch is the nature center the volunteers built.

When county money ran out for the nature center, residents stepped in with donations of money, supplies, time and energy. A core group of about 50 volunteers has been working toward the center's grand opening for three years, said Heather A. Davis, a naturalist and the center's only full-time employee. Another 100 people have helped with special projects.

Volunteers have logged 5,000 hours, including 500 hours in April, said Melinda Byrd, administrator for Bear Branch and also for Piney Run Nature Center in South Carroll.

The county spent $609,000, including $176,500 it received from the state, for the 7,000-square-foot building in 1990-91. But county officials decided against spending money to equip it when the recession hit.

"It's more challenging to do it this way," Ms. Davis said. "But in the end, I think it will be more rewarding for the community."

Residents had the chance to decide what they wanted in the center, she said.

And they went all-out.

The nature center has a planetarium, a life-size masonry tree that's also a puppet theater, a bird observation room, a gift shop and a handicapped-accessible outdoor trail.

Eagle Scout Mark Bray of Manchester designed the paved 765-foot trail that meanders by bluebird houses, a mud pit where animals will leave their tracks and a water conservation area.

Mark, 16, of Boy Scout Troop 665 will be at the grand opening Saturday to show people the project he's worked on for a year and a half.

"It's exciting," he said. The job has boosted his self-esteem, he added.

The planetarium is one-of-a-kind, said Ron Smith of the Westminster Astronomical Society. He and society members Paul Henze of Westminster and Mike Scalion of Hampstead constructed the 20-foot-diameter dome.

"It's built like a model airplane," Mr. Smith said.

The frame is made of plywood covered with muslin and is light and self-supporting, he said. They built it for less than $500.

Most planetarium domes are made of aluminum or fiberglass and cost at least $10,000, Mr. Smith said.

A planetarium in Richmond, Va., donated the projector that will sit in the middle of the room, and an Ohio college donated curved benches that will be set up around the projector. The room measures about 22 feet by 22 feet.

"I hope it turns people on to astronomy," Mr. Smith said.

Nearby, honeybees will be buzzing from the flowers outside to an enclosed honeycomb in the "discovery room."

Steve McDaniel of Manchester and Garey Wilmsen of Gamber, both members of the Carroll County Beekeepers Association, built an observation case that will hold 3,000 to 5,000 honeybees.

Visitors will be able to watch "the comings and goings" of the bees as they gather pollen from flowers outside and then return to their colony inside the observation case. The bees will travel through a hole in the wall to the case.

For visitors who may be wary about so many bees, Mr. Wilmsen said the case will be secure, and the thousands of bees won't be traveling in and out at the same time. Besides, Mr. McDaniel said, "Honeybees are gentle and harmless."

In the exhibit hall, a three-foot-tall black bear that is the nature center's mascot of sorts will be displayed. The stuffed bear, which is native to Maryland and probably was about 2 years old, was donated to the center by Bertha Schaefer of Hampstead.

In the lobby of the center is a display of four extinct birds on loan from the Smithsonian Institution -- an ivory billed woodpecker, a heath hen, a passenger pigeon and a Carolina parakeet.

The Maryland Natural History Society arranged for the center to borrow the exhibit, Ms. Davis said. She said she hopes the center will have other Smithsonian exhibits.

Ms. Davis, 25, has been working as a naturalist at Bear Branch since August.

She grew up in the Union Mills area and previously worked for the Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Department at the Oregon Ridge Nature Center.

She has a bachelor's degree in geography and environmental planning from Towson State University and is working on a master's degree in park planning there.

Bear Branch Nature Center will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Admission is free, but there will be a charge for some programs and classes.

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