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USC plans outdoor center at Prince George

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

A new environmental education center in the works on Waccamaw Neck will offer lessons on the natural world, but they won’t take place between four walls.

Instead of shutting students away from the plants and animals being studied, the Longleaf Environmental Learning Center’s aim will be to get people outside, interacting with nature and experiencing the outdoors.

“The last thing we want is to bring people into a sterile, climate-controlled building to teach them about nature,” said Doug Earick, project director. “This is an opportunity for them to really get out and see these things in action.”

The hope is that will motivate them to adopt more environmentally friendly practices in their homes, he said.

A project of the University of South Carolina, the center will be located on the west side of Prince George and will include programs and interpretative exhibits at facilities that are low-impact and environmentally sustainable.

“We don’t plan on paving any roads or anything like that. We want this to remain a very natural area,” said Jerry Odom, executive director of USC Foundations.

An architect was on site this week and USC officials are working on getting permits for development of the center.

As the land is home to red-cockaded woodpeckers, a protected species, there are a number of issues to be dealt with.

But the main one is funding.

“The foundations and the university are both committed to this project, but the university has suffered severe budget cuts this year. And it may get worse before it gets better,” Odom said. “We’d like to start on it tomorrow, but our timeline will depend on when resources are available.”

Once resources are available, construction is expected to take a year to 18 months, he said.

Plans are for an open-air classroom, trails and outdoor teaching areas aligned to programs and curriculum.

Children, teachers and parents will be able to learn about the history of the land, local wildlife, environmental sustainability and wetlands, and the importance of keeping them healthy.

The open air classroom will be something like a screened-in porch fronting a small office space and restroom facilities, Earick said.

“We wanted something sheltered, so if it’s raining, kids can get in there with the things they find and get it muddy, and we can just hose it off when they’re done,” he explained.

Solar panels will be installed to provide electricity for the site and a water collection cistern for irrigation is planned.

Restroom facilities will have composting toilets, which are not connected to a sewage system or septic tank.

The land being used for the facility was purchased by USC in the mid-1990s as part of a 100-acre parcel. The purchase agreement stipulates only 10 acres can be developed and the development must have an educational purpose.

With the land situated so close to the Waccamaw River and in the heart of a longleaf pine forest, the university decided it would be an ideal location for an environmental education center.

Though there are other places in the area where people can go to learn about the environment, there’s nothing like what’s envisioned by USC, Earick said.

Hobcaw Barony, for example, is just down the road and has classrooms and a visitor’s center to teach the public about animals and the local flora and fauna.

“But you can’t just park your car there and go walking on the trails,” Earick said.

The environmental education center will be open to all, but programs will be targeted toward children at the early education level.

“We’re hoping to get in there early and help them develop an empathy toward the environment and plants and animals,” Earick said. “It’s more emotional than simply cognitive.”

As kids get older, they’ll move into more content-driven learning programs.

USC has worked closely with the Georgetown County School District in planning the center and its programs, as it will serve as a destination for class trips, as well as after-school and summer programs.

Odom said there are many reasons to encourage kids to spend more time outdoors, one of which is better health. Studies show children who don’t spend enough time playing outside are more likely to suffer from asthma, depression and obesity.

When he was a kid, Odom said, he’d spend most of the day outside, but “nature has been taken away from children today. Everything is so structured.”

Earick added, “they don’t get outside and climb trees and build forts anymore, or any of the things that we used to do.”

Without that connection to the outdoors that previous generations have had, “there are questions about where our future environmentalists are going to come from,” Earick said.

Teaching kids to love the outdoors and respect the environment is important to the future of the conservation movement.

“We want to encourage kids to look at things under microscopes and ask questions,” he said. “We want to help them develop that relationship with the environment for the good of everyone.”

To learn more about the center, visit www.environ.sc.edu/longleaf.

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