Thursday, May 22, 2014

Work set to start on $3.7 million education center additions at Horicon Marsh

Visitor center to remain partially open during construction but DNR service center will temporarily close starting June 1

HORICON, Wis. -- A charging woolly mammoth, old-fashioned hunting camp and talking Clovis point will soon greet visitors to the Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center, thanks to a $3.7 million public-private effort to depict the wetland's dramatic history.

Construction of the new educational displays and hands-on exhibits will take over the center's main level on June 1 and continue in phases through August 2015. The exhibits will occupy portions of both the first floor and lower level, which opens onto a trail system winding through the 11,000 acre state marsh.

"We're grateful for the support we've received and excited to get this project underway," said Bret Owsley, Horicon area supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "We think the result will truly benefit the community as our visitor numbers are projected to increase from the current 50,000 per year to 150,000 within the first three years. In addition to growing numbers of school groups, we anticipate seeing more families and individuals interested in Wisconsin's natural heritage."

Although restrooms and some public spaces in the building will remain open, the construction will force the temporary suspension of DNR counter service from June 1 to approximately July 7. Alternatively, many businesses in Dodge County offer hunting and fishing licenses sales as well as vehicle and boat registrations. For a complete list, search the DNR website for "sales locations" or contact the DNR Call Center toll free at 1-888-936-7463.

In the meantime, work on the enhanced education center will continue. The existing structure was completed in 2009, but portions of the building were left largely unfinished until the planning for the interpretive displays was completed.

Owlsey said nearly $1 million in private donations from the Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center helped leverage state support to reach the $3.7 million goal. The new education and visitor amenities will build on two existing classrooms and an auditorium already in use for lectures and public events.

As part of the nation's largest freshwater cattail marsh - the Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area borders an additional 22,000-acre Horicon National Wildlife Refuge (exit DNR) managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - the history of Horicon spans some 12,000 years. In the new exhibits, that story will be eloquently narrated by a Clovis point arrowhead.

"The arrowhead points us to important events in the history of the marsh, from the time the glacier receded through today," Owsley said. "The Clovis point has witnessed these changes and survives to share the story of the marsh with new generations."

Horicon Marsh started as a network of rivers and wetlands left behind by receding glaciers and grew into the world's largest man-made lake after early settlers built a dam to power a sawmill in the 1840s. When the state Supreme Court ordered the dam removed in 1869, the marsh quickly returned and began drawing huge flocks of migratory waterfowl and other birds.

After market hunting depleted the bird populations, a short-lived attempt to ditch and drain the marsh for farming from 1910 to 1914 ended in failure. Then, during the 1920s, conservation-minded citizens pressed the Legislature for support and started a restoration process that continues to this day.

Drawing on this history, highlights of the new exhibits include:

  • An area depicting the receding glaciers, complete with a mammoth charging out of the wall and examples of the flint-knapped Clovis points found in these early hunting grounds.
  • A walk-through glacier that creates a chill in the air as visitors learn more about the Ice Age and origins of the marsh.
  • A private hunting lodge, similar to those of the late 1800s. Interactive, hands-on displays will show the effect of market hunting on wildlife during this time period and highlight the role of local hunting clubs in trying to create the first set of hunting regulations.
  • Hand-carved decoys produced by local artisans who established stylistic techniques that remain distinguishing features today.
  • A hands-on water control structure that shows how water levels are managed within the marsh today.
  • An area with an airboat simulator that provides a narrated tour of the marsh and offers an opportunity to see and feel the rush of operating an airboat at Horicon.
  • Numerous bird and animal mounts as well as examples of common marsh plants.

"Thanks to input from a variety of stakeholders, we believe the exhibits will offer something for everyone while encouraging people to explore the marsh itself," Owsley said. "We look forward to welcoming the public once the work is completed in late summer of 2015. And we appreciate everyone's patience with the temporary service center changes."

Members of the public are encouraged to call ahead to 1-888-936-7463 to obtain contact information before planning to meet with regional DNR personnel as some staff members will be stationed in other offices during the construction process.

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