Norm Penner, president of the Friends of the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, is pretty excited these days about the group's activities and future plans.

And the members also are reacting enthusiastically to the near-completion of the 6,000-square-foot visitors' center and its future opening, which will provide many more amenities for the refuge's human visitors.

The refuge, located north of Pacific Highway between King City and Sherwood, opened in June 2006, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owned or managed 1,358 acres, many of which were converted from agricultural use back to natural areas.

Since then, the refuge boundary has been expanded by 4,310 aces with the inclusion of land around Wapato Lake near Forest Grove.

Sections of 450 acres are open to the public and include trails, a river overlook, a wetlands observation deck, a wildlife photo bind and an interpretive area.

The refuge had a humble beginning in the early 1990s, when a group of people in Sherwood contacted Fish and Wildlife about starting a refuge in the area. A couple donated 12 acres, which was the start of the refuge.

Fish and Wildlife appropriated money to purchase more land from willing sellers, and the Friends group was incorporated.

'It's a real thrill for me to see the visitors' center completed,' Penner said. 'In all these years, there has never been an office for our group - it's been in somebody's home. The new building has an office for us.'

Penner was pleased with the Nov. 17 annual membership meeting because 'we had a fantastic turnout,' he said.

'We have 226 or 227 members, and 100 showed up. In the past, there were sometimes more board members than general members. And it was our first time in the visitors' center, and members could purchase items that will be for sale in the new store. We made $1,600 that day. I like to think we selected good items to sell.'

Items sold in the gift shop must be connected in some way to nature or the refuge specifically, such as books, walking sticks and magnets featuring birds in the refuge.

At the general meeting, the membership elected two new board members: Steve Burke, who lives on Bull Mountain and is an attorney in Lake Oswego, and Chuck Britton, who is a financial manager for Edward-Jones in Sherwood.

'The visitors' center will be open to the public in mid-January when the exhibit hall is done,' Penner said. 'The center will be an educational resource and provide an extension to the classrooms around the community.'

Janice Jenkins, an environmental education specialist, started working for the refuge Nov. 26, and will be training local teachers in how to take advantage of what the center has to offer.

Meanwhile, although the building is still closed to the public, the grounds are open every day from dawn to dusk, and visitors can walk along the trails to catch glimpses of wildlife.

'We have friends who are volunteers out on the trails wearing blue vests,' Penner said. 'They are mostly there on weekends to answer questions and help people. The refuge is a very busy place, and it's getting busier.

'I expect this place to be a major attraction, and so does Washington County. With a little promotion, it will get a lot of visitors.'

Also at the annual meeting, the group went over its calendar of future activities and programs, which includes the dedication ceremony set for March 29.

The featured guest will be Richard Louv, a newspaper columnist who has been published across the United States and who is the author of several books.

Louv's seventh book is 'Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,' which he summarizes by saying, 'Take your kids outside.'

'We are renting the Tualatin High School Auditorium for his speech, and he will sign books,' Penner said. 'He has a great message that will resonate among people. He says that today's kids are not in touch with nature, and we need to get them away from computers and back outdoors.

And we're also looking for help raising funds to pay for his visit.'

The refuge is at 19255 S.W. Pacific Highway, Sherwood.

For more information, call 503-625-5944.

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