The Human Touch

The new visitor's center at Ash Meadows NWR.

The new visitor’s center at Ash Meadows NWR.

Interpretations: Recently Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge celebrated it’s new visitor’s center by hosting an open house. It’s a wonderful new facility located in the heart of the refuge and just a short distance from the old visitor’s center. The old center was a double-wide trailer, and after many years of service it was really showing its age. It’s hard to keep something up that was never built to last in the first place. The new center has many new interpretive displays, informational kiosk, videos and various types of multimedia. All of it is very informative, artistic and inspiring. It’s a much larger, professional facility and should serve the visitor’s and staff of the refuge for many years into the future. Almost 500 visitors came out that day for a wonderful open house event. Out on the Crystal Springs boardwalk behind the new center, several information stations allowed folks to learn even more about the wonders of Ash Meadows NWR. I had the pleasure of demonstrating the equipment that I use to record the soundscape of the refuge. Visitors got to wear headphones and listen to sounds picked up by a parabolic dish microphone (an exceptionally powerful microphone.) The timing for a few lucky listeners was such that they were able to hear a Phainopepla call from his nearby perch. The bird makes a home at the refuge during the cooler months. Hearing its soft whistle through a dish mic really made for a memorable experience.

The SoundScape Station

Ready for visitors at the Soundscape Station

For the sake of discussion, let’s address a hard question. Does a haven for wildlife such as Ash Meadows need a visitor’s center? I think a quick response might be no. Certainly the creatures that inhabit the refuge have no use for such a facility. However, I think the real answer is a little more complicated. Interpretive centers help people transition from our domesticated lives to wild, untamed places. Most of us really don’t want to be too far from the conveniences of civilization, whether it be a restroom (even a pit toilet), a drink of water or an opportunity to buy a souvenir. If those facilities were not available and Ash Meadows was left in a completely wild and primitive state, I doubt if people would ever bother to visit and develop an appreciation for its many wonders. Today, most visitors to the refuge stop at this central facility, read a few interpretive displays and walk on a couple of the boardwalks. They are not likely to walk on the dunes around Peterson Pond, make the long hike across the Carson Slough or visit other places around the refuge. They will spend a couple of hours during the middle part of the day and experience only a small portion of the refuge. I think that’s perfectly fine. Most wild places should be left alone. But an important and critical mission may be accomplished during that short visit. Some of those visitor’s, you can also call them citizens, voters and taxpayers will likely develop an increased appreciation and understanding of wild places and the creatures that live there. There’s hope that some of those citizens will stand in defense the next time that small haven for wild creatures (an ever diminishing number of havens at that) becomes threatened by the never-ending appetite for urban development. In the words of Ed Abbey, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” I think you can go a step further by saying that refuges and wilderness areas do more than serve the needs of wildlife. A historical and intricate bond ties wild lands and wild creatures to the human spirit. Our distant ancestors were wild creatures living in a wild, untamed land, and we should never forget those roots of our history. Fifty years ago, the great writer Wallace Stegner wrote a letter to congress stating the case for establishing the Wilderness Act. In that letter he wrote, “We simply need that wild country available to us even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”