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AK MARITIME: Build It and They Will Come - Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center
Alaska Region, November 15, 2004
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It may be at the end of the road in the small town of Homer, Alaska, but visitors in unexpected numbers are flocking to the new Islands & Ocean Visitor Center of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The center opened in the dead of winter to a standing room only crowd of 2,400 in a town with a population of only 10,000. Excitement continued with 75,000 visitors pouring through the doors by the end of its first year, more visitors than at all other refuge facilities in Alaska combined. Visitors came from all 50 states, 23 countries and included 3,500 students and distinguished guests such as Secretary Norton, Director Williams, and congressional staffers Leif Fonnesbeck and Loretta Beaumont. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens formally dedicated the facility July 4. Over 200 people applied for 10 full time volunteer positions whose benefits included only free RV spaces, a small stipend, and a chance to be in on the first year's action.

Why such fuss over a refuge visitor center? It is drop-dead gorgeous with hundreds of thousands of dollars of marine-themed art work; it commands a stunning coastal site with trails through varied habitats; it tells in a very entertaining way the multi-faceted story of one of America's most unique refuges; and its riveting feature film on the Refuge's research vessel, Journey of the Tiglax, was a finalist at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Islands and Ocean is shared with the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, a unit of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. It offers adaptable spaces to support a variety of uses beyond casual visitation ? environmental education including class lab work, trainings, workshops and agency meetings of all sizes, themed events and art shows.

Visitors are wowed by the enticing design which leads them into the off-shore world of this island refuge. A seabird room surrounds visitors with the sights, sounds, and even smells of a large colony. The unusual human history of the refuge which includes the Russian voyages of discovery, some of the earliest land set-asides for wildlife purposes, World War II battles, bases and bombings, and even nuclear testing add an intriguing dimension. Befitting the maritime theme, boats are evident throughout the center: a restored Refuge wooden dory, a recreated Aleut kayak, an inflatable, and replicas of the refuge's 120-foot ship, M/V Tiglax, convey a sense of journey and reinforce the island concept. Exhibit designers Aldrich/Pears of Vancouver, Canada did an outstanding job in meeting our objective of bringing this remote, lightly visited refuge to the people.

Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center has taken the refuge and the Service to a higher level in visitor services, outreach and visibility in Alaska. To learn more about the center, visit our website, www.islandsandocean.org.

Contact Info: Kristen Gilbert, 907-786-3391, Kristen_Gilbert@fws.gov



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