SEQUIM — A little rain wasn’t going to stop this party, not with about four decades and a proverbial river of community and regional support behind it.
Advocates of the Dungeness River Nature Center gathered Sunday for the invitation-only celebration of the — almost complete — multi-million-dollar expansion in which nearly every aspect of the popular center is upgraded, including expanded meeting spaces, gift shop, coffee shop, rain garden, new entry road and parking lot and a hands-on Discovery Area, 3-D watershed relief map and salmon room. It isn’t open to the public yet, but a community open house is planned July 6-7.
When visitors come to the center at 1943 W. Hendrickson Road in Sequim, “they’re going to know they are in for a surprise and a destination,” said W. Ron Allen, tribal chairman for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.
Home to numerous outdoor and educational activities, the center will “help people understand why nature is so important,” Allen noted.
“This is a dream come true,” said Annette Hanson, president of Dungeness River Nature Center and a founder of what would later become Railroad Bridge Parks educational center, on Sunday as she thanked donors.
“You have given our community and region one of the best legacies you ever could,” she said.
The project started off with a $2.9 million price tag, center Director Powell Jones said, but it escalated to about $5.4 million thanks to the pandemic, supply chain issues and other uncontrollable effects on costs.
Through the 2018 “Inspire Wonder” capital campaign, large contributions came from partners, philanthropic organizations and community donations. However, nature center advocates have raised about 90 percent of that final price tag, Jones said.
Funds still are needed for the fabrication and installation of the 3-D ecosystem exhibit, said Jan Halliday, Donor & Sponsor Engagement coordinator for the nature center.
The exhibit will feature five murals, integration of the expansive wildlife specimens, interpretive panels, photos, tribal artifacts and related equipment that showcases the entire watershed from snowfields to saltwater.
The rest of the exhibits are being manufactured now and scheduled to be completely installed by Oct. 30, Halliday said.
State Rep. Steve Tharinger of Legislative District 24 was among the dignitaries celebrating the center’s opening Sunday afternoon. He recalled a favorite William Shakespeare quote: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
Said Tharinger: “There’s no question the world could use a bit more kinship right now. The River Center provides that kinship in an ever-expanding magnitude by connecting the young and old to the natural world of the Dungeness Valley.
“The center helps people understand the complexities of the inter-relations of the river’s ecosystem, which is a good thing on many levels.”
The new, polished river center is the culmination of more than four decades of efforts to give the community a place to learn about and explore the Dungeness River watershed, one that had its origins in a room at the old Sequim High School Building off North Sequim Avenue.
In the mid-1980s, Hanson’s husband, Mark Hanson, a middle school science teacher, overheard sixth-graders talking about what birds they’d shot and showing what he felt was a general disregard for animal life.
So he began mounting taxidermied birds and began showing them in classrooms, using an educational permit from state Department of Fish and Wildlife “to salvage specimens,” Annette Hanson recalled.
“We had road kills, window kills — you can imagine what we had in our freezer,” she said.
In 1984 —with the help of local artists — the Hansons constructed the Sequim Natural History Museum, an entire model watershed from mountain to sea, filled with specimens of the flora and fauna in floor-to-ceiling dioramas.
Mark Hanson got an educational permit from fish and wildlife to salvage specimens.
In the early 1990s, when the school reclaimed the space, the museum went into storage. However, community members worked together to purchase the historic Railroad Bridge and a half-mile right-of-way as Railroad Bridge Park, the first piece of the Olympic Discovery Trail in Clallam County.
“We thought, ‘What a perfect place to have a new center. Look at the setting we have.’ That’s why we’re here,” Hanson said Sunday.
When the project’s government sponsorship fell through, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe assumed responsibility and ownership of the land and buildings, expanding the park by 10 acres on the east side of the river.
The Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society and National Audubon Society joined the partnership in 1997.
Since its opening in 2001, people have visited the Dungeness River Audubon Center for classes, festivals, lectures, field trips, summer camps and more.
“After about 12 years in a small building … conversations started happening, ‘We don’t have enough space,’” Jones recalled.
Years later, thanks to partnership with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, the efforts to renovate the facility in full became realized.
“The really cool thing about the River Center is that it’s not like a lot of other nature centers, where it’s strictly biology or ecology and that sort of stuff,” said David Brownell, executive director of the North Olympic Historical Center, in a video produced about the center’s expansion.
“[It] combines the elements of the actual railroad history [of the Olympic Discovery Trail and bridge] and then elements of tribal culture and history.”
Railroad Bridge Park will have no public parking through June 5. After that, the new parking lot will be open.
“We want to be a world-class nature center,” Jones said.
“There might be a couple 1,000 kids going through, learning about the watershed. How that trickles through the community — when they go home and introduce new ideas to their family and talk about it — on a local level, that’s incredible.”
Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].