Going wild near Washington

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Before COVID-19, I often would fly from Rochester to Washington, D.C., on Southwest Airlines, landing in Baltimore. From there it’s 45 minutes on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway into D.C. Along the way, I’d see signs for interesting federal sites, among them the Goddard Space Flight Center and the secretive National Security Agency. But the sign that most intrigued me—about halfway to D.C., near the town of Laurel, M.D. —was one that read: “National Wildlife Visitor Center.”  

Maybe I take signage too literally, but every time I saw that I’d think: Really? The federal government has a center for visiting wildlife?  

I imagined a family of elk visiting from North Dakota, stopping at the National Wildlife Visitor Center before hoofing it into the District. Or migratory geese flying in from Canada, or alligators crawling up from Florida to check out the infamous D.C. “swamp.”

Inside the Visitor Center, I imagined the animals being charged an entrance fee and given wrist bands color-coded to reflect whether they would just tour the exhibits or also view the award-winning orientation film: “Wild in Washington: Preparing for your Visit to the National Capitol.”

My imaginings were absurd, of course—and yet, we do hear of absurd things the federal government funds. I recall the “Golden Fleece Awards” given by the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisc.) to federal agencies for squandering public money. The National Science Foundation won one in 1975 for a $103,000 study ($503,000 in today’s dollars) comparing the aggressiveness in sun fish that drank tequila versus those that drank gin. In 1979, the Office of Education won for producing for $219,592 ($795,000 in today’s dollars) a “curriculum package” teaching college students how to watch television.  

So, the government could build an orientation center for wild animals visiting Washington, right? It was possible.

I had to find out, and so I emailed the National Wildlife Visitor Center to ask if I could visit. Jason Cangelosi, visitor services manager, replied right away. The center is closed due to COVID, he said, but he’d be glad to open it if I’d like a private tour.

How could I resist? On a sunny afternoon in late March, I made the half-hour drive from D.C. to the Visitor Center. 

National Wildlife Visitor Center (Photos by Elisa Siegel)

The actual name, I learned, is Patuxent Research Refuge. Established in 1936 on land surrounding the Patuxent and Little Patuxent rivers, it’s one of 567 national wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (Two refuges near Rochester are Iroquois, outside Medina, and Montezuma, near Seneca Falls.). Patuxent is unique, however, because it’s the only one with a dedicated research facility. Biologists and other scientists there study threats to the environment and to wildlife. It was from research done at Patuxent, for example, that Rachel Carson, author of the ground-breaking book, “Silent Spring,” first became aware of the dangers of pesticides such as DDT. (In 2019, a Patuxent researcher spoke in Rochester at a conference of the Eastern Bird Banders Association.)  

I wasn’t entirely wrong, by the way, about there being wild animals in the Visitor Center. But if the animals I saw there came hoping to visit D.C., they never got very far because they’re still at the Visitor Center—stuffed and under glass. In various displays and dioramas, I saw a polar bear, a family of wolves, beavers, and dozens of large, migratory birds. 

Display at National Wildlife Visitor Center

To my question about the heavy display of stuffed and mounted wildlife, Cangelosi acknowledged that while many such displays date to early years of the Visitor Center, similar facilities built today would likely feature less taxidermy. But even if you’re put off by real stuffed animals, just avert your eyes; the Visitor Center has plenty of other attractions, including a child’s activity area, a gift shop, and a 200-seat theatre where there are plans upon reopening for a special one-night showing of “The Falconer.” This film portrays African-American master falconer Rodney Stotts as he works to create for both endangered raptors and underserved urban youth a haven for healing and growth.

But here’s the most important thing I learned from my visit:  the Visitor Center, while educational, is not the main reason to visit Patuxent. The main reason is that it sits on 12,000 acres of the largest undisturbed tract of land—with forests, meadows, and lakes—in the intensely developed Baltimore-Washington corridor. Set smack in the middle of the 10 million-person Baltimore-Washington megalopolis, Patuxent is a hidden gem, an oasis of peace. On miles of hiking trails, you can hear nothing but birdsong—including Wood Thrush, Kentucky Warbler, and Whippoorwill—as you walk beside ponds home to fish, beaver, and migratory birds. If after a year stuck at home by COVID and staring at TV and computer screens, you’re ready to “forest bathe,” this could be the perfect place.

Goose Pond, Patuxent Wildlife Refuge

Though the Visitor Center itself is closed due to the pandemic, the hiking trails are open, and increasingly popular. Cangelosi attributes this to people wanting to get out into nature after being cooped up during lockdowns. On a recent weekend day, 500 people signed in to hike on the refuge’s North Tract trails, more than double the usual number.

That the Visitor Center remains closed, however, has put Cangelosi in an unusual situation. Cangelosi, 41, has a degree in environmental education and previously served as volunteer program manager on the National Mall. But since his hiring nine months ago as visitor services manager, he has yet to see any regular visitors at the Visitors Center—a facility that in a normal year might see a quarter million people.

Jason Cangelosi, visitor services manager

Instead, he’s using the time to plan his focus for when the center does reopen, possibly in June. He’s keen, for example, on using the refuge to educate urban kids who may have little exposure to nature. “If you grow up in an urban environment,” he says, “the natural world can be scary.” Urban children may not be familiar even with common birds, such as robins, cardinals, or blue jays. “We can teach kids how to observe nature,” he says. “We can teach them how to relate.”

Some of the educational programs he’s eager to resume are in-person events with Stotts—the falconer who is the subject of the film to be shown at the Visitor Center—and a guided, electric tram ride through parts of the refuge. 

The electric tram rides prompted Cangelosi to mention another type of train currently on his mind and the minds of others at the refuge: a high-speed maglev (magnetic levitation) train proposed to run between Washington and Baltimore.

“The current proposal would put the maglev through a part of the refuge,” says Cangelosi. “It’s out for public comment now.”

The train, with top speeds up to 300 miles per hour, would run largely through tunnels except for an above-ground section north of D.C.—a section that includes the refuge. 

In January, reports the Chesapeake Bay Journal, the “Superconducting Maglev Project” took a step forward when the Federal Railroad Administration and Maryland Department of Transportation published the preliminary findings of a federally mandated five-year, $28 million environmental and engineering study.

The public comment period runs through May 24. To view the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and submit a comment, go here.

I suppose there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the maglev issue, but really, routing a train through a wildlife refuge? That might be worthy of a Golden Fleece Award. Patuxent Wildlife Refuge, however, is no Golden Fleece. Instead, as I’ve come to appreciate, it’s a golden opportunity, and I hope you’ll get a chance to enjoy it—while you can. 

Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected].

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