The Bear Branch Nature Center, which opened Saturday, is testament to the power of volunteerism. Without the contributions of time, energy and labor, Carroll County's newest nature center still would be shuttered and closed. Volunteers of all ages, abilities and backgrounds made the difference, and they will have to continue their contributions if the center is to remain open.
Construction of the Bear Branch center, located at the Hashawa Environmental Appreciation Center on Route 97 north of Westminster, was finished in 1991. The wood-frame building sits on a hilltop with an exceptional view of hundreds of acres of woodlands, fields and wetlands. Unfortunately, its completion coincided with the start of Carroll's budget problems.
The county spent about $600,000 to build the 7,000-square-foot structure, but did not have enough money left to complete the interior, purchase exhibits or staff the nature center.
A dedicated group of about 50 volunteers decided to take up the task of completing the work to open the center. They organized groups to finish the building's interior, assemble the exhibits, in stall plantings and a nature trail, and staff the center. Three years of people working on weekdays, weekends and nights -- more than 5,000 hours -- transformed the unfinished shell into an attractive nature facility.
Wherever you turn in the center, the handiwork and generosity of the volunteers is evident. A mural, designed as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and hand-painted by volunteers, depicts the various types of habitats in Carroll, from wetlands to suburbia. Volunteer labor constructed the domed ceiling of the planetarium at a fraction of the cost had the work been done by professionals.
County residents donated everything from a stuffed black bear to a complete kitchen, used to demonstrate environmentally friendly shopping.
While a full-time naturalist is on the staff, the operation of the center still requires plenty of volunteers. If you can't give your time, think about donating a few dollars to the program.
Only with continued community support will the Bear Branch Nature Center be a first-class educational attraction for all the residents of Carroll County.