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Nature center a place for discovery

The Baltimore Sun

Three decades ago, hundreds of acres of county-acquired land became the home of a county-run gem, with its rolling landscape of farms, fields and forests forming the Hashawha Environmental Center.

Melissa Boyle was born the same year. Like most other Carroll County students, Boyle spent a week at Hashawha in the county's Outdoor School when she was a sixth-grader. But she also returned - again and again - working as a counselor in her senior year of high school and as a naturalist for four years.

Boyle is now the park manager, charged with overseeing the facility through its 30th anniversary. The year brings the grand opening of a new wetlands classroom, along with the usual influx of campers, nature lovers and students on field trips - visitors who come to Hashawha for its combination of educational activities and recreational opportunities.

"It's a lovely environment," Boyle said. "We have a lot of different habitats which people like. We have the lake and the pond, the fields, streams and meadows. You can go in and out of the woods and see different wildlife."

With about 380 acres, the grounds at Hashawha include more than five miles of trails and an array of plant and animal life. Its private conference center and five cabins host camps and retreats, while various programs, annual festivals and the Bear Branch Nature Center are open to the public.

The park's newest addition is a wetlands classroom, located near Lake Hashawha in a barn that for years was used for storage.

Lake Hashawha - the largest of the facility's three manmade lakes - is home to fish, amphibians, birds and mammals that live in and around the water, making it a natural site for students to learn about wetlands ecology.

With outlets such as the wetlands classroom, the Outdoor School and Bear Branch Nature Center, visitors can benefit from hands-on and up-close educational experiences.

About 98 percent of Carroll sixth-graders go through the weeklong Outdoor School, county officials said.

For five days, the children learn about the environment, participate in team-building activities and apply what they've learned in the classroom.

"It's a memorable experience and great fun, but it's also a powerful lesson," said Steve Heacock, who has worked at Hashawha for 30 years, almost all of which have been with the Outdoor School.

Students who go through the Outdoor School program leave after learning significant lessons, said Margaret Pfaff, director of curriculum, instruction and staff development for the county school system.

"It provides students with an opportunity to participate in an activity that creates a sense of independence, a sense of community," she said.

"It certainly has huge benefits related to our science curriculum and other curricula as well," Pfaff said.

The classroom experience extends into various exhibits. Several species of snakes and turtles are kept in captivity, and Hashawha houses several birds of prey, including owls, two red-tailed hawks and a bald eagle.

"Each of the birds we have has a story and a lesson as to why they're in captivity," said Boyle, the park manager. "These birds have a permanent injury and could not survive in the wild. They are kept for educational purposes."

The staff at Hashawha and Bear Branch is made up of 14 employees, but they receive additional help from scores of volunteers and students completing their service-learning requirement.

Doug Walters went to his first camp at Hashawha in fourth grade, returning repeatedly until he was old enough to be a counselor. Walters translated his volunteering into an internship during his senior year at Westminster High School, and he now majors in environmental studies at Shepherd University.

Hashawha "opened up my eyes to the different careers that are in the field," said Walters, 19, of Westminster. "I didn't know there was a career where I could go and be outside all the time. My plan is to actually get an education where I'll be out at a place like Hashawha and Bear Branch."

Walters, who lives near Hashawha, said he enjoys walking and biking the park's three trails.

"It's nice just to get out into the woods," he said. "I like looking at all the plants, especially in summer, [and] in winter it's great to see different animals and follow all their tracks.

"I've always felt welcomed out there," Walters said. "There's always more stuff to explore."

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