The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is getting a new community and nature center paid for with a $5.25 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The grant, announced Thursday, allows the refuge to begin construction on a single, multipurpose building that includes new parking and roadway access. The new center will replace the current cluster of four smaller buildings and an office trailer.
Eric Anderson, deputy project leader at the refuge, said the new community center will be a major upgrade from the staff’s current setup — seven refuge employees squashed into a modular building that is essentially a double-wide mobile home.
“We’ve been in this facility since 2005, and as soon as it came in, we realized it was inadequate,” Anderson said.
The wildlife refuge stretches across 5,300 acres along the lower Columbia River, protecting grasslands, wetlands and forest. The area preserves threatened wildlife, including the Columbian white-tailed deer and the horned lark.
Around 160,000 people visit the refuge annually. The ones who come in to talk to staff “literally are standing in a 6-foot by 6-foot lobby. Two people in that space is too many,” Anderson said.
Currently, refuge staff are spread out over two separate locations — the modular building and an outbuilding approximately 20 minutes away by truck, Anderson said. The other three outbuildings are used for storage and maintenance.
When the new community center opens, the refuge plans to bulldoze the outbuildings and remove the modular building, moving everything and everyone into a centralized location.
“It’ll allow us to consolidate our key staff,” Anderson said.
If all goes according to plan, the refuge will be able break ground on the project in the next fiscal year, he added.
The community center will join a spate of upgrades at the wildlife center, including the creation of new walking trails, sidewalks that stretch from the refuge into downtown Ridgefield, and restrooms with flush toilets.
The outcome should be a safe and inviting space for visitors, Anderson said.
Securing the funds was a collaborative effort between the refuge, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Senator Patty Murray and the city of Ridgefield.
“Today, Ridgefield residents, and all of us who live nearby and love experiencing nature, can celebrate this milestone toward making the new Community and Nature Center a reality,” Herrera Beutler said in a media release.
“I have no doubt this new center will improve the public’s experience when they come here to discover the wildlife and native culture of this beautiful region,” she said.
Ridgefield’s mayor, Don Stose, said in the media release that the announcement was the culmination of years of hard work between the city and federal lawmakers.
“We are all truly excited for a world-class community and nature center to appropriately welcome people to the natural beauty of Ridgefield’s National Wildlife Refuge,” Stose said.