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New nature education center set to open in Los Alamos

LOS ALAMOS – Nature education is getting a new home here – the kind of home where native fish stare back at you from an aquarium, ants have their own farm and rocks explain themselves when you poke them with your finger.

Situated with a vista of a canyon and mountains in the distance, and cheery yellow evening grosbeaks in the foreground, the Los Alamos Nature Center is holding its grand opening 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday and will launch regular operating hours the following Friday (the center is closed on Thursdays). A special Earth Day celebration with entertainment, food and activities is planned for Saturday, April 25.

The center also includes a planetarium, where a domed ceiling can display anything from a laser light show (planned for July) to a map of the constellations. The space will also host talks on any subject from bighorn sheep to honeybees to where to find waterfalls in northern New Mexico.

“We are incredibly excited,” Katie Watson, executive director of the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC), said in taking the Journal on a tour on Wednesday. With some exhibits still incomplete, chairs waiting to be set up in the planetarium and a donors’ gala looming on Saturday, she also appeared a bit harried.

Los Alamos County provided the $4.3 million funding for the 6,000-square-foot building. It owns the building and hired PEEC to run it, she explained. PEEC was started as a nonprofit organization in 2000 by people interested in teaching kids and adults about the natural world. It has been renting a pre-school building since 2005 to offer its ongoing programs, which include nature playtimes for toddlers, local hikes, wildflower walks and family nights, along with special events or talks.

“We already do two to three programs a week for the public,” Watson said. “We’re definitely going to have new planetarium shows.”

And while the organization has been hosting Los Alamos schools for field trips, she said PEEC intends to attract students from a larger area to the new center.

Also new is an exhibit area, funded by a $1.2 million capital campaign, with interactive lessons on the themes of canyons, mesas, mountains and skies. A three-dimensional map shows the rolling terrain of Los Alamos – kids love to pinpoint the location of their homes on that exhibit, Watson said. That topography comes with a Los Alamos Trails app that you can download to pinpoint your location when you’re out on the area’s many miles of trails.

On another exhibit, you can push rock buttons lined up with geologic strata and a recording tells viewers about the make-up of the materials in that layer. Call it a tuff lesson.

Choose an altitude on another display and white lights trace their way up to a mesaside to mark the elevation, while pictures appear on a screen to show what flora and fauna you would find there. Another display bubbles and glows in illustrating the volcanic action that formed the Jemez Mountains.

A tank with Rio Grande cutthroat trout and other native species is included in the Los Alamos Nature Center. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A tank with Rio Grande cutthroat trout and other native species is included in the Los Alamos Nature Center. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A small gift shop is perched near the entrance, while a children’s discovery area veers off to the left. Kids can play with models of native animals on a diorama of the Pajarito Plateau, or just sit themselves down to work on a drawing or read a book. A naturalist’s station will display the bones and rattles that engage many a youngster, while a microscope allows room for an object to be put beneath it and displays its details on a computer-size screen.

Another seating area will face broad windows with a sweeping view of the landscape, while another next door opens up to a garden with plants, water flowing into a pond and bird feeders to attract an array of non-human residents.

“We’ve already had millions of birds and squirrels, and a herd of deer,” Watson said.

A room tucked into the corner, available by appointment, houses the herbarium, where stacks of shelves hold folders of dried examples of the plants that grow in the Jemez Mountains. “A lot of people study plants,” she said.

The planetarium offers opportunities for astronomical programs, including contemplated classes on how to be an astronomer. While the skies over Los Alamos offer pretty good views of the stars, Watson said, this dome will use only projections (from a $70,000 super-duper projector) of pictures of the skies – but you can choose to study skies from almost any place or any time.

Anton Friis paints a diorama of the Pajarito Plateau for kids to play with at the Los Alamos Nature Center. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Anton Friis paints a diorama of the Pajarito Plateau for kids to play with at the Los Alamos Nature Center. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A classroom completes the interior, where kids will gather for their field trips and play times, she said. High on one wall clings a giant spider made by Richard Swenson from scrap materials. Other artworks include a painting by Travis Black showing species native to the area and, outside the entrance, a hanging array of stained glass over a rock sculpture by Greg Reiche.

Raised beds between the building and the road will contain native and drought-tolerant plants, plus a children’s “mud kitchen” where they can make things from mud. A geologic time line with rocks of different ages also will be set up.

Some elements, such as the gardens, are still in process; Watson said she hopes to have them all planted by the summer. A portion of the roof has been set up for solar energy panels, but they’re on hold until the county can come up with the money to buy and install them, she said.

Overall, while PEEC’s old location mainly attracted people for specific programs, still providing services to almost 17,000 people in the past year, this center might find its place on the tourist map, while also giving locals a place to hang out, Watson said.