For 21 years, staff members at Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Missouri have been – in the endearing words of refuge manager Tom Bell – “trailer rats.” They’ve been housed in a cramped, hard-to-find trailer in Columbia, about 20 miles from the nearest refuge land.

Soon, thanks to the first national- level U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintenance action team (MAT), the trailer rats will have a new office/ visitor contact station on a refuge bluff overlooking the Missouri River floodplain.

“It is almost impossible to overstate what an improvement the new office and contact station will be over the trailer we have occupied since 1995,” says Bell. “We will be conveniently available to the public for the first time.”

A MAT is a group of Service employees with maintenance skills, drawn from multiple field stations and temporarily brought together to work on a construction, demolition or habitat restoration project that traditionally would be done by a private contractor.

MATs tend to be intra-regional. The Big Muddy Refuge contact station/ headquarters MAT project is the first to be national. The team has included more than 50 employees from all eight Service regions, Headquarters and even the National Park Service. The MAT has been led by Midwest Region heavy equipment coordinator Dale Pittman and Alan Lagemann, a maintenance worker at Great River National Wildlife Refuge, MO/IL.

MATs also tend to save money. The Big Muddy Refuge project is expected to cost $3.5 million. Bell and Pittman estimate that is $1 million less than if it had been done by a private contractor.

“The MAT concept has been essential,” says Bell. “Given current budgets and fiscal expectations, I don’t believe we would be building an office and visitor contact station otherwise. The savings are significant.”

MAT projects typically last three to six weeks; this one is more than a year. It is “the largest project we have ever undertaken,” Pittman says. It broke ground last June. Despite being hampered by severe rain, the bulk of construction is scheduled to be done by this September. Visitor exhibits are to be installed by December. Big Muddy Refuge is 12 units along a 367.8-mile stretch of the Missouri River between St. Louis and Kansas City. The new office/visitor contact station is roughly at the midpoint just off Interstate 70 at Overton Bottoms, the refuge’s largest unit.

“For the first time the public and our many partners will have an attractive place to interact with us and each other, enhancing communication, cooperation and understanding,” says Bell. “Visitors will be able to orient themselves to the refuge and the Missouri River resource, ask questions, pick up maps and guides.”

The 6,500-square-foot building will include staff offices, a meeting/classroom for 60 people, and a small exhibit room. The exhibits “will address large river hydrology, fish and floodplain dependent wildlife as well as human interaction and influence,” Bell says. Two walking trails will begin at the building.

Bell and Pittman are effusive in their praise of all who helped make the project happen, but they single out Lagemann, Midwest Region civil engineer Todd Criswell, Big Muddy Refuge administrative officer Molly Comstock and Headquarters facilities personnel John Blitch and Greg Resch.

“The crews are remarkably hard- working, skilled, upbeat and fun to be around. They also want everything to be just right,” says Bell, a Missouri native who has been refuge manager since 1999. “I think everyone is demonstrating what great potential the Service has to accomplish large and high-quality projects with our own resources.”

Adds Pittman: “I cannot thank the project leaders enough for allowing their people to help on the project.”