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Wildlife refuge short ride away

Published: 04:43PM June 7th, 2012
Wildlife refuge short ride away

Scott Hansen/Northwest Guardian

Visitors to the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge walk along the four-mile trail system. Trails are open daily from sunrise to sunset.

One evening not long ago, a Soldier in full uniform turned up at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge just south of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He walked in with a pair of binoculars around his neck and made an announcement.

“He told our staff he was going birding, which I thought was pretty cool,” refuge manager Jean Takekowa said.

The refuge, which encompasses 3,000 acres of habitat for local wildlife, has experienced a few changes in recent memory, but when all is said and done, it’s still a quick and easy way to soak up the outdoors only a few minutes off Interstate 5.

“It’s so close to everything, and yet as soon as you get out of your car you’re in nature,” visitor services manager Sheila McCartan said,

That was doubtlessly what drew the bird-watching Soldier down. In fact, he came to use his America the Beautiful Pass, which is now free to all active-duty service members and their dependents. The annual pass, which is normally $80, provides access to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas across the country. It can be obtained at many of those locations that have staffed visitor’s centers, including 50 in Washington.

Takekowa and McCartan agree that it’s a great way for military families to explore new parts of the country on the cheap, including the Nisqually NWR.

Over 300 species of birds, fish and other local wildlife species can be found on the refuge, which opened in the 1970s. The protection of wildlife is at the core of everything it does — visitors must keep strictly to the trails, and leave pets and bikes at home, to create the best environment for wild animals.

“That way the wildlife observing is really high quality,” Takekowa said.

In 2009, 762 acres of the Nisqually River estuary was reconnected to the tides of Puget Sound, making it one of few in the state that hasn’t been filled, dredged or developed. Last year, the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail opened, allowing visitors to go on a two-mile walk above the estuary’s floodplain.

“Every time you go out there, it’s different,” McCartan said, commenting on the fact that the view changes with the ebb and flow of every tide.

So far the trail has been a hit, and may have contributed to the facility’s record-setting 200,000 visitors last fiscal. Takekowa estimates that’s a 25 to 30 percent increase —but there are plenty of other things to see, including five miles of easy, stroller-friendly trails, an environmental education center and even a Nature Explore Area that allows kids 2 to 10 years old to get acquainted with the outdoors.

“It’s kind of fun. I’ve never known there were so many types of life here,” Alfredo Ramirez-Cortes, 9, said on a field trip to the facility from Centennial Elementary School in Olympia.

For many, though, the main appeal is the peaceful nature of the area. They come by after work to take a walk and enjoy the scenery, barely out of range of the hum of the freeway.

“A lot of people use it as a refuge for themselves,” McCartan said.

If you go

The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is located off of Interstate 5’s Exit 114, and is open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset. The refuge Visitor’s Center is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The fee is $3 for four adults. For information, including descriptions of events, visit www.fws.gov/Nisqually/visit.html.

Saturday, June 16

• 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. — Birds of a Feather: Take Flight on a Bird Walk

Sunday, June 17

• 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. — It’s in Your Nature: Exploring the Wild

Saturday, June 23

• 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. — How to Keep a Wave on the Sand: Capturing the Outdoors with Photographs

• 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. — It’s in Your Nature: Exploring the Wild

Sunday, June 24

• 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. — Nature Up Close: Introduction to Macro Nature Photography

Saturday, June 30

• 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.— Birds of a Feather: Take Flight on a Bird Walk

America the Beautiful Pass

America the Beautiful Military Passes are free to active-duty service members and their dependents. They can be obtained in-person at federal recreation sites. Passes do not need to be acquired in advance of arrival. For more information, including a list of sites across the country, visit www.nps.gov/findapark/passes.htm.