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Stand at the overlook outside the Bloomington Visitors Center at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and you get a panoramic view of trees and water, sky and grass.
But what's really down there?
Eagles, woodpeckers, herons, turtles, ancient oaks, deer, turkeys, foxes, flowering prairie plants, fish ... the list is very nearly endless, if only people would venture out on the trails.
Getting people out into the refuge is the purpose of a renovated Visitors Center, which after a 15-month remodeling will have its grand reopening on Aug. 7.
Static displays have been replaced with interactive and interpretive pieces, many aimed at children. At the push of a button bird songs play.
Kids can "build" a bird by twirling cylinders to match body parts. And displays with flip panels provide answers to questions.
The theme is set by a quote from former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall that greets visitors as they walk in the door:
"Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife, are in fact plans to protect people."
An urban refuge
The refuge, one of only a handful of urban refuges in the nation, stretches almost 50 miles along the Minnesota River from Fort Snelling State Park past Belle Plaine. Established in 1976, the refuge is a favorite spot for bird watchers and is an important stopover for migrating birds and waterfowl. Several pairs of bald eagles nest there. And the Bloomington Visitors Center, located a mile east of the Mall of America, is the most common entry point for visitors.
The display overhaul, which cost $350,000, is the final part of a renovation that added geothermal heating and cooling and solar panels to the building. Refuge manager Charlie Blair said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to make its buildings environmentally responsible and energy efficient.
"We need to set the example," he said. "And it's good management to save energy and save money."
The center now includes a large open area with windows that look out onto woods that will be a flexible classroom. Displays center on forests, grasslands and wetlands, the three habitats in the refuge. Mounted on low walls that look like cutaways of the habitat they illustrate -- tree roots and grass roots protrude from the sides, and animal tunnels cut through the soil -- the displays show a red fox peering out of tall grass and a great blue heron standing in a pond with water lilies. Hidden in the grass are snakes and their shed skins, and bugs like beetles.
The center's popular bird-watching corner, which looks out on feeders and a fallen oak tree that attracts birds from woodpeckers to cardinals to wild turkeys, has been preserved. Two-tiered seating will allow small birding classes to be held there.
A large map on the wall shows where the river valley fits into U.S. migration flyways. Touch tables, where kids can handle skulls, bones, hides and feathers, also remain.
Signs outside the refuge have been replaced, with more information on how to access trails. While the overlook that's a short walk from the center has been improved -- a new and stronger telescope is on the way -- Blair wants more people to venture out onto refuge trails. A short loop called the Hillside Trail starts just to the east of the center, linking to 15 or 16 miles of trails that wind around Long Meadow Lake to river flats and even across the river.
"If you start on top you will walk through grasslands, down through bluff habitat to a floodplain with big old cottonwoods, all within a couple of miles," Blair said. "Our whole intent is to get people to go out and explore."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380