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Nature House Could Be Open by Next Year

The Friends of Reston for Community Projects Inc., the nonprofit fund-raising arm of the Reston Association, may be hedging its bets, but Charles Veatch has confidence that the group will meet its goal of breaking ground in nine months on the proposed Nature House at the Walker Nature Education Center.

"We have set a goal and, boy, it's an ambitious one," said Veatch, a Friends board member. "It's so we can have it finished by the fall of 2004."

The Friends is raising the $700,000 needed to build the 3,500-square-foot, year-round facility, while the Reston Association will take over the operational expenses, including staffing, once the project is finished. So far, the Friends have collected more than $200,000 through corporate and community donations.

Veatch, who along with Claudia Thompson-Deahl, created the photography book, "The Nature of Reston," is donating all the proceeds to the cause.

"To date, we've made over $65,000 from the sale of the book," he said.

THE NATURE HOUSE will be situated on the portion of the 72-acre Walker Nature Education Center, which is bisected by Glade Drive, that now houses a storage area and seasonal bathrooms. The finished project will have no effect on the nearby pavilion.

Katie Shaw, environmental education manager for the Reston Association, said Nature House was needed to provide an indoor public space to support the association's several nature programs, which include school field trips. The programs are currently limited to April through October, and are subject to Mother Nature.

"I have to make the weather calls and cancel the trips. Sometimes you can reschedule, sometimes you can't," Shaw said. "Every time I have to cancel, I know there are 20 to 25 children that were so excited about coming. If you're teaching to hard-core nature lovers, you could do it in the rain. But, it's not appropriate to teach children lessons in the rain."

The new facility will provide a multipurpose room, exhibit area, resource room and library to teach lessons even when the weather is not cooperating. In addition, Shaw said the additional room could provide for extended lessons after the outdoor portion of the program, complete with microscopes, computers, hands-on experiences and exposure to live animals. "We can even have a closet full of rain slickers," she said.

"We have tens of thousands of kids who come through here and other groups use the nature areas. All the activities have to be compressed into spring through fall. Nature education is a year-round process," said Joseph Ritchey, also a Friends board member. "Nature House provides a space when it's not so good to be outside."

WHEN RESTON was envisioned by Robert Simon in the early 1960s, the master plan of 1964 called for a mix of residential and commercial development that blends with natural areas. Over the years, the Reston Association acquired the land in two phases that now makes up the Walker Nature Education Center, named for Reston's first open space director, Vernon J. Walker. Shaw said the association acquired 40 acres of land south of Glade Drive in the 1970s and then 30 acres to the north in the 1980s. The push to build Nature House, she said, begin in earnest about five years ago and represents the last piece of the overall education center development plan.

"This is a special project and it's important to the community,"

Veatch said. "We don't have a time schedule other than the one we're imposing on ourselves."

Veatch said making Nature House a reality is a community-wide project and none of the money is coming from Reston Association dues.

"We're definitely appealing to the entire community because it will be used by the entire community," Veatch said. "It's going to be a nice community facility."

Shaw said when the project is finished, it will have space for three full-time staff members — herself, a naturalist and an environmental educator — as well as be staffed by seasonal employees, including a teen naturalist, and volunteers.

The exhibit displays will rotate, most likely on a seasonal basis, and will include aquariums, terrariums and live native animals that are rehabilitating or are too injured to be released back into the wild.

"I see small changing displays. We'll have some neighborhood kids that bike to Nature House every day and we have to keep them interested," Shaw said.

She also said the Nature House experience is not meant to replace the outdoor experience. As much as possible, lessons and programs will continue to take place outside and self-guided tours, for those who do not want to participate in an organized program, will be available.