Kenai refuge’s new visitor center opens

SOLDOTNA — Kenai National Wildlife Refuge staff said that their new visitor center, which began construction in 2013 and opened to the public for the first time on Friday, is not only larger than their previous center but more interactive.

Matt Connor, the refuge’s chief of visitor services, said that the old visitor center was “just kind of a little cubby-hole area with some exhibits around the corner. It was 30 years old. The exhibits didn’t really tell quite the same story.”

The new visitor center contains a walk-through exhibit called “From Icefields to Oceans,” which depicts the variety of habitats found on the Kenai Peninsula, including wetlands, tundra and streams. Refuge staff co-designed the exhibit with contracted artists from Split Rock Studios, based in Minnesota. Connor said that interactivity was a goal of the new design.

“I always appreciated going to visitor centers where you weren’t greeted with ‘no.’ That’s just the wrong message,” Connor said. “If it’s ‘no this’ and ‘no that,’ ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ — whatever happened to ‘hello’? What this does is just says ‘hello.’ Touch it. If it wears out, we’ll replace it. … I’d rather people touch it, feel it, experience it and feel welcomed, versus having to tell them no.”

To that end, the exhibit includes buttons that trigger bird sounds, samples of animal fur, scat, and footprints, a model beaver lodge that children can crawl into, and a sniffable exhibit that contains the smell of cottonwood.

“For me, as an educational specialist here at the refuge, I wanted to make it very kid-friendly,” said education specialist Michelle Ostrowski. “I wanted to make it very tactile and multi-sensory.”

Bringing the previous 30-year-old educational exhibits up-to-date includes acknowledging climate change and its particular impact on Alaska ecosystems. The exhibit refers to climate change in its text related to ice fields and wetlands, both of which are anticipated to shrink as a result of it.

“For many years, Fish and Wildlife Service was in that process of ‘does climate change exist?’” Connor said. “Now our agency, we don’t waste time on that anymore. Climate change is here. How are we going to manage for it? So that’s the shift that has occurred. That’s what some of those panels are talking about. As the habitat shifts and changes, we’ll see wetlands turning into meadows.”

Another change is that the new identification plaques give the name of each of the exhibit’s mounted animals in both English and Dena’ina.

“The staff that worked on it said, from day one, that that was really important, to show respect to that culture,” Connor said.

Visitors who came to the refuge opening with children said they appreciated the interactivity. Lacy Ledahl, who brought her sons Iver and Ottar, said the new visitor center was “beautiful.”

“Much nicer than the one we had when I was a kid,” Ledahl said. “I told (Iver) he could push all the buttons. That’s why we were here so long.”

Soldotna residents Sharon and Dick Waisanen said they plan to bring their grandchildren to the new visitor center.

“It’s not just good for little children, but good for adults, too,” Dick Waisanen said. “It’s so educational. So many visitors that come to the area, many of them don’t get to see a beaver or a moose. It explains about it, so it’s really good.”

The new visitors center will have a ceremonial grand opening on May 30, at which the name of the bronze moose in front of the center will be announced. The previous visitor center building is being converted into office space for refuge staff.

The visitor center is located on Ski Hill Road in Soldotna.

Ben Boettger is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.