By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

From its grand entranceway and majestic main hall to the Discovery Hall’s beehive and bat cave, the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s NaturePlex complex opens our connection to Alabama’s phenomenal outdoors experience.

The 23,000-square-foot facility at the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) headquarters at Lanark Plantation on the outskirts of Millbrook provides a state-of-the-art window into the state’s diverse ecosystems that range from the Appalachian foothills in northeast Alabama to the white-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

The facility’s theatre seats 120 people and has the latest video and audio equipment. It also functions as an auditorium for meetings.

“It has the most up-to-date technology,” said Tim Gothard, AWF’s Executive Director. “You can bring your laptop, and from the podium you can control everything you need in your presentation, whether it’s movies or PowerPoints or whatever. Our conservation education activities take first priority, but anytime it doesn’t conflict with our conservation education program, we will rent out the facility.”

The Alabama Power Foundation Hall is the main hall with slightly more than 2,000 square feet of gathering space.

“The structural components in the entranceway and main hall utilize southern yellow pine and laminated beam technology to create these high ceilings and archways that really highlight a unique entry space,” Gothard said. “The big glass windows on the front and back of the space let the outdoors come right back into the building as soon as you walk in.”

Because of the tremendous amount of glass used throughout the building, a customized film was developed for the windows. The CollidEscape film is a bird collision prevention treatment.

 “So far, we’ve been open for about six months and we haven’t had a single bird collision,” Gothard said. “It’s a great technology, and it’s doing exactly what we wanted.”

In the Discovery Hall, a map of Alabama is etched into the floor with the major physiographic regions of the state highlighted. The major areas are the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, Black Belt, Piedmont and Tennessee River Valley.

“The stories and displays around the room play off of that map and those regions and display the unique aspects of the forests, land forms, aquatics and wildlife from around those areas in the state,” Gothard said. “In one area, we highlight pollinators. Bees can come in and out of the wall to our functional beehive. We have displays on carnivores, herbivores and omnivores. We even have a live, endangered Eastern indigo snake that was confiscated from the pet trade. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, knowing the education activities we are doing out here, decided this would be an appropriate place to use that Eastern indigo snake in a positive, educational way.”

The display associated with north Alabama highlights the cave and bat diversity that abound across the northern tier of the state.

“Kids can come in here and learn more about caves and bats,” Gothard said. “Our video is being updated right now with expanded video footage and sounds from the different bat species that make Alabama home. A motion sensor will turn the video and audio on so the kids can learn a lot more about bats.”

A trip back south to Alabama’s coastal plain takes visitors through the history of the longleaf pine and restoration, an effort that the AWF has dedicated significant resources to by providing education on techniques for longleaf regeneration.

“We also have a gopher tortoise and we use it, along with the Eastern indigo snake, to talk about that longleaf pine ecosystem and the wildlife that depend on it,” Gothard said.

The final section of the Discovery Hall should be in place by the end of this month with the addition of the Raptor Kiosk.

“People will be able to get into the kiosk and push about 15 different buttons to highlight the different raptors,” Gothard said. “Depending on which button is pushed, a presentation will educate the kids on that particular raptor with video, photos and audio. Then we can flip a switch, and it turns the presentation into a game to where you’ll hear the call of the raptor and you attempt to identify that raptor.

“One of the things we focus on in that raptor display is bald eagle recovery. It will highlight the significant work that has been done through the years to facilitate the recovery of bald eagles.”

Downstairs, the NaturePlex has a large classroom that can be divided in half as well as a large dining area.

“Our focus is actually to get the kids outside to do things, but we can use these classroom facilities when we want to do lab-based activities with microscopes or water-testing kits,” Gothard said. “If we’ve got school groups coming and weather is not cooperating, then we can use the classrooms to immerse them in outdoors subject matter even though inclement weather won’t allow them to go outside.”

Gothard said the NaturePlex is designed to be used by individuals and groups through guided and self-guided exploration.

“You can bring your family and pay the $5 general admission fee,” he said. “Then you can enjoy the Discovery Hall at your leisure. You can take in a movie that shows at the top of each hour starting at 10 o’clock. You can take in any of the planned programs we have scheduled, like animal encounters, or you can go on guided hikes on the 5 miles of boardwalks and trails we have surrounding the NaturePlex.”

Gothard said the NaturePlex was part of the property’s master plan for the Alabama Nature Center that was designed in 2001 for the Lanark property. The opening of the NaturePlex represented a major change in the accessibility to the general public.

“Prior to opening the NaturePlex last October, the facility was only open to the public every third Saturday,” he said. “When we had the NaturePlex grand opening, it all changed. Now from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, you can pay the little general admission fee ($20 cap per family) and enjoy the trails and boardwalks, the NaturePlex and any programs we have going on. You can bring a picnic lunch and make it an all-day family event.

“And the feedback has been outstanding. The teachers, students, the corporate entities, everybody has been blown away by not only the visual aspects of the facility, but also the functional aspects of the facility. During our spring run of field trips, we have more than 6,000 students scheduled to be here. That’s about a 40-percent increase over last year. We’re really proud of the NaturePlex and how well it has been received.”

Visit www.alabamawildlife.org/ for more information.

PHOTOS: (David Rainer and Shipman Schaum) A grand entranceway greets visitors at the Alabama Wildlife Federation NaturePlex in Millbrook. AWF Executive Director Tim Gothard points out the southern pine ceiling and laminated beam system that was produced in Alabama. The Discovery Hall gives visitors all sorts of hands-on activities to learn about the diverse ecosystems in Alabama.

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