Staff and volunteers at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota can’t imagine how they operated without the Tamarac Discovery Center. The center, built and donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the Friends of Tamarac, is a testament to long-lasting community support.

“It’s a dream we’ve had for years, and it’s exceeded all expectations. It’s created unbelievable interest in our local community to participate in our education programs,” says Ron Jenson, past president of the Friends of Tamarac and the center’s construction coordinator.

Since the center’s grand opening last June, more than 3,000 children learning about the local ecosystem have visited the building. It serves as the hub of a growing environmental education program. Many of the children are from the White Earth Indian Reservation.

The center is also a place for the refuge or Friends to host volunteer training, citizen science workshops and partner meetings. The Friends have helped make powerful connections with surrounding communities. Now, everyone from photography clubs to the White Earth Tribal Department of Natural Resources has a beautiful place to gather to discuss conservation.

Before starting a capital campaign to raise money for the Discovery Center, the Friends did a feasibility study to see if the community was ready to support such an undertaking. The community was ready. Through careful planning, with guidance from a fundraising professional, the Friends raised more than $500,000 in just a year.

“Raising this amount in a small community was remarkable, but we were committed and had a meaningful project,” says Friends board member Don Blanding. “People don’t give to the project as much as they do to people, based on relationships. We had the right relationships in place to make this happen.”

The Friends of Tamarac provided $600,000 of the almost $800,000 cost of the building and its landscaping. The federal investment was matched three to one by private donations raised by the Friends. The facility is built to last and incorporates energy conservation features, including geothermal heating and cooling, high-efficiency windows and doors, water-conserving bathroom fixtures and high-efficiency lighting. Wi-Fi inside and outside the building, and other technology, assures the building’s relevancy into the future.

The center helps Tamarac Refuge foster in all Minnesotans an appreciation for wild places and wildlife.

“Our vision for the Tamarac Discovery Center is one that will inspire the next generation to connect with nature and offer pathways to new opportunities that were previously unattainable,” says refuge manager Neil Powers.

Previously, when the refuge held interpretive programs at primitive access points with pit toilets, attendance was minimal. Now, when the refuge advertises an event at the Discovery Center, attendance can be four times what it was. When the weather cooperates, activities are still held outside to make meaningful connections with nature, but the accessible facility, amphitheater and trails allow a wider range of people to feel comfortable participating. Grandparents bring grandchildren to the “Wild Wednesday” events through the summer and fill the classroom that accommodates 50 people.

The Tamarac Discovery Center stands as a symbol of a community uniting for conservation.

“I’m continually amazed that our Friends, refuge staff, volunteers, community partners, business leaders and private citizens all came together with a goal of making this project a reality,” says Powers.

“I am especially proud of the fact that we all came together as ‘investors’ in the future of natural resources conservation.”

Kelly Blackledge is visitor services manager and Friends liaison at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.