Right now, construction of the Claudia L. Workman Wildlife Education Center is in the less-than-pretty phase, with heavy equipment pushing piles of dirt here and there. Someday in the not-too-distant future, a gleaming facility will stand where those piles once were.

Division of Natural Resources officials gave the public a glimpse into the future at a recent meeting of the state Natural Resources Commission. In a 15-minute presentation, the DNR's Art Shomo showed a gathering of some 50 people what the finished center will look like.

He showed them low-slung, 7,000-square-foot building with a timber-framed gable at the center of its faade. He said roughly half the building - to be located on the Forks of Coal State Natural Area near Alum Creek - would feature exhibits dedicated to the area's wildlife and ecology, and half would be devoted to a classroom capable of accommodating 50 to 60 people.

"The building will be surrounded by wildflowers, and large windows at the back of the building will allow visitors to look out into the surrounding woods," Shomo added.

Once completed, the $4 million center will fulfill the dream of the late Claudia Workman, an amateur naturalist who lived just across the road from the Forks of Coal property. Claudia's husband, Jack, donated the 105-acre tract to the DNR shortly before he died, with a proviso that a nature-education center be built on the grounds.

The center will be built with money from several sources, including interest from the DNR's Kanawha River Endowment Fund, revenue from oil and gas royalty payments, and donations through the Forks of Coal State Natural Area Foundation.

Shomo said construction will take place in three phases. The first phase, which began earlier this year, will put all the necessary infrastructure into place.

"We're having to put in a small sewage treatment plant, move a gas line, install water lines, and build a new access road," Shomo explained.

"The new road will intersect with Corridor G about a quarter mile south of the current entrance. We had to construct a new access because the current entrance is in the middle of a blind curve and isn't very safe. All the infrastructure work should be completed by the end of July."

Completion of the other two phases - construction of the building itself, and installation of all the exhibits - will begin sometime after that. Shomo said an exact starting date hasn't been set, but after construction begins the building should take a year to a year and a half to complete.

Visitors to the center will walk under a vaulted, timber-framed ceiling into the center's exhibit hall. A carpet pathway, blue to simulate the Coal River and its two main tributaries, will wind through the exhibits.

Just inside the entrance, a 1,500-gallon aquarium will feature fish species native to the river. An exhibit that features some small live animals will be located nearby.

"There will be exhibits that deal with wildlife management, wildlife habitat, forest growth and succession, and law enforcement," Shomo said.

The exhibits, designed by Split Rock Studios, a professional design firm from Arden Hills, Minnesota, will feature a section devoted to full-body taxidermy mounts of elk, white-tailed deer, black bear and beaver. Another section will detail how young forests grow to become mature forests. Yet another will focus on famous conservationists.

Still another portion of the exhibit will focus on how law enforcement helps protect wildlife and the environment.

Because the center is expected to attract students from area schools, one exhibit will give youngsters an opportunity to arrange rock-shaped foam pillows into simulated stream-improvement structures on the center's blue-carpeted "rivers."

With the center's back windows offering near-panoramic views of the surrounding trees, DNR officials will try to encourage visitors to do a little bird watching.

"We're going to try to have tethered binoculars there so people can view the birds," Shomo said. "Along with that, we'll have an exhibit on bird watching and listening."

DNR officials expect the center to be staffed by two full-time employees and a group of volunteers.

"We want to have a naturalist that will plan and lead nature hikes, take care of the exhibits, lead tours inside the building, and oversee the volunteers," Shomo said. "We'll be working with school systems to arrange visits to the center. We'll look at the schools' curricula and try to match our presentations to their needs."

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