Big Lake Refuge visitor center opens

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Construction of the new Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and visitor center is completed. The new facility is open five days a week, 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It is located in the same area as the former headquarters off Highway 18, east of Manila.

Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and Visitor Center is now open.

The two year building project includes the 2,500 square foot visitor center, headquarters, educational classrooms, and much more. It is all handicapped accessible. Located behind the headquarters building is a new 40x120' maintenance shop to house equipment.

Jeremy Bennett, Big Lake Refuge manager, said the project was in the planning stages for two years and the construction phase for two years.

The project was funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The estimated cost of the project was $1.25 million.

Bennett said they will be working on landscaping and finishing the visitor center room with displays and artifacts from the area. The center features an educational classroom equipped with a television, projector and pull down screen, and aquarium.

An open house will be held in the near future. Bennett said he plans to invite teachers, home school parents, and organizational leaders to view the new facility. He hopes they will partner with Big Lake to bring children to the Refuge to educate them on what they have in their own back yard.

Anyone who has artifacts from the area and would like to place them on loan to be displayed at the visitor center is welcome to do so.

"We have log nets made by Ned Rice on display," Bennett said. "We will also have a voice recorder and screen where people will be telling their own Big Lake stories."

One of the conservation features of the project includes a rainwater cistern system. The runoff water from the roof goes into the cistern system and is used in the plumbing of the new building. The maintenance building was built with solar panels to help cut the cost of utilities.

An old welcome sign made of rock has been relocated from Oak Island to the entrance of the new headquarters and will be renovated.

"RSC Rentals in Blytheville brought out a large fork lift and loaded it on a flat bed to help us move it," Jody Pack, engineer/equipment operator at Big Lake, said. "We are working on a sign so it once again can be used. If anyone knows where the entrance sign was originally located we would appreciate the information."

Pack said he is especially pleased to have Big Lake's equipment under the cover of the new shop facility.

"Having the equipment inside will make a big difference in the life of the equipment," Pack said.

The new building is done in cypress siding giving it a natural look for the area.

"We are also looking for volunteers who would like to work at the visitor center giving out information and distributing pamphlets to visitors," Bennett said.

There is also a camper set up for volunteers who come to work at Big Lake from time to time and a RV pad available for volunteers who bring their own camper.

"It is great to see the facility almost completed," Bennett said. "This is for the public and we welcome visitors."

Big Lake Wildlife Refuge is one of over 500 refuges in the system administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Big Lake is made up of over 11,000 acres and is an asset to the area.

In a separate project underway at Big Lake, the bridge across Muck Ditch adjacent to the Highway 18 Bridge is being replaced. Across the bridge there will be a handicapped accessible parking lot and a 150 foot board walkway to the photo blind on Mud Slough Moist Soil Unit. The construction is being done by API LLC of Jonesboro. The walkway overlooks the 32 acre Baker's Field and the 140 acre Mud Slough Moist Soil Unit.

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