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Friends of Tryon Creek envisions new 'living canopy classroom'

Group hopes to raise $1.2 million for renovation of state natural area's outdated visitors center


REVIEW PHOTO: SAUNDRA SORENSON - Jeffrey Lang, president of the Friends of Tryon Creek board, wants to create a true living canopy classroom for kids at the state natural areas visitors center.Tryon Creek State Natural Area was dedicated in 1975, the result of a private-public partnership between Friends of Tryon Creek and the state of Oregon. Since then, the less-than-200-acre park has grown to about 670 acres.

But the visitors center, which hosts about 5,000 area schoolchildren throughout the year and another 750 day campers over the summer, seems stuck in the decade it was established. The lodge-style receiving area, situated beneath a forest canopy, is dark and, though comfy, seems a bit cut off from the natural beauty surrounding it.

“Our main ranger, John Mullen, came to us years ago and said, ‘We really need to open up the building and make it inviting,’” recalls Jeffrey Lang, Friends of Tryon Creek board president.

REVIEW PHOTO: SAUNDRA SORENSON - Wildlife sightings from the Tryon Creek State Natural Area visitors center during a typical week include woodpeckers, banana slugs and, uh, Big Foot? At one point, plans called for redesigning the visitors center in an architectural style that would better integrate the surrounding forest. The Friends group also hoped to rehabilitate two derelict — but historically important — log cabins built more than 100 years ago and acquired through the park’s expansion.

“They’re just awesome. They’re built with old timber,” Lang says. “They’re really special, but have been in a derelict condition for a long time. That was one of the other projects we wanted to take on. But I think at this point, (the cabins) are going to take a back seat.”

Lang and his board decided to pare down their wish list.

“There were proposals to build a second building, there were proposals to change the footprint. But I was hoping we could keep the original footprint,” Lang says. “Maybe if we have to, we can expand it a little bit to accomplish what we want to do. But this is a preserve. The goal is to keep the forest and not end up with a big lodge.”

The board ultimately decided to appeal to supporters with a $1.2 million request, 40 percent of which has already been funded through large gifts from donors.

“There are four main things we’re trying to accomplish,” Lang explains. “One is, on that southwest end, we want to create a true living canopy classroom for kids. We want to build a very open classroom, with windows that will open up, so instead of asking kids to imagine they’re in the canopy, in the forest, they’ll actually be in that canopy” — and simultaneously in a classroom that can hold up to 40 occupants.

Second, the board wants to address the rather dim and potentially outdated aesthetic of the center.

“There’s a lot of people that go up to those front doors, they look in, and they walk away,” Lang says. “It’s not good for anybody.”

This brings the Friends of Tryon Creek to its third goal, which dovetails neatly with longtime activist Lang’s vision.

“I want to create a living building,” Lang says, explaining that a properly renovated building can pull double duty as “a zero net carbon demonstration project to show the community what you can do with good planning and analysis to save energy and resources.

“If permitable,” he adds, “we will sell excess power back into the grid through our local utilities.”

That means a combination of sustainable technologies to support what has become a community meeting space, classrooms, a small library and offices for the rangers and 11 staff members who support the Tryon Creek State Natural Area.

“We’re thinking of geothermal (technology), we’re going to have a little solar,” Lang says, although he admits that solar panels — existing as they would in significant forest canopy shade — would be more for show and education than actual function.

“We want at least a couple panels so that the kids can touch and feel and understand there’s other things beside coal plants and dams on rivers in the world,” he says.

Equally important to the new, revamped center is accessibility. The fundraising campaign will also support an elevator, a requirement the City of Lake Oswego allowed the center to waive when it mounted a $600,000 expansion in 2003, Lang says.

Lang says he isn’t worried about finding the financial support.

“When I sit with donors, people really radiate to the living building concept,” Lang says. “Everyone likes education, of course, and the education we do is pretty deep. But donors, I think, have come around finally to the idea that the world’s in a messed up way, and we need to move on some of this stuff rather than be just dreaming about it.”

His bigger concerns are with securing the proper permits in a process that he understands can take between five and six months. Still, Lang remains optimistic about the Tryon Creek Natural Area project.

“All this stuff has pretty much been in the master plan for years, but there’s just been no funding,” Lang says. “That’s where the Friends come in. In addition to running the education programs, we bring the money — hopefully. And then they work with us, because it takes money to build.

“This is becoming a very robust place,” he says.

For more information about the Friends of Tryon Creek and its fundraising efforts, call 503-636-4398 or go to tryonfriends.org.

Contact Saundra Sorenson at 503-636-1281 ext. 107 or ssorenson@lakeoswegoreview.com.

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