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Education is the basis of the Wilderness Center in Wilmot, Ohio. Every concept, every display and every activity is designed to teach children and adults the importance of conservation and preservation of nature and the wildlife that comes with it.
Professors Arnold Fritz and Charles King both held a strong appreciation for nature and all its beauty. After visiting nature centers in other states, Fritz decided Ohio needed a center of its own and collaborated with his colleague, King. A Wilderness Center Committee was formed and 109 people attended the first meeting.
The Stark Wilderness Center was formed in June of 1964. In December of that year, the center acquired the Sigrist Farm, which gave them a total of 687 acres and 10 miles of available walking trails. The first director, Jerry Felland, and the first naturalist, Bob Hawes, were hired shortly after to provide education to the community.
"We've grown a lot over the years," said Vicki Whitt, marketing director and volunteer coordinator for the Wilderness Center. "We have 12 full-time employees and over 700 volunteers a year, and we are on our third executive director, Jeff Conway, Ph.D."
Conway has a background in ecology and natural resources and obtained his degree from the Ohio State University. "I've been working in the field of 'outdoor education' for 25 years, and I have worked as an administrator of nature centers and field stations for 12 of those years," Conway said.
Conway's main focus has been developing science education curriculum and making complicated science and ecology practices more accessible to students and adults.
"I want people to not only understand nature but be able to make better decisions for the environment based on their knowledge," Conway said. "That's why I love the role a nature center can play. Come and experience the outdoors and learn."
What started with a small amount of land conservation, wetland mitigation and stream restoration has grown to 3,277 acres of protected lands in Stark, Tuscarawas, Wayne and Guernsey counties, Whitt said.
"We have 50 years of history, protecting and preserving a slice of Ohio," Conway said. "The land is just the same as it was 50 years ago."
Many programs have been developed to help spread conservation awareness and provide resources to others. The TWC Consulting Forestry service was developed to help others across the state maintain their forest land by providing them with resources to maintain a more sustainable forest.
The Tree of Life program is a living memorial for someone who has died or a way to commemorate a birth, anniversary, birthday or other milestone. The tree not only serves as a special memorial or gift but also gives back to nature by providing food and shelter to the wildlife. Records and maps of tree locations are stored at the Wilderness Center to make each tree easy to locate and identify.
The Wilderness Center implemented Foxfield Preserve in 2008, as a natural way to bury a loved one. No embalming is involved, and the body is laid to rest in a biodegradable container. The body decomposes naturally and returns to nature in a way that provides life to the surrounding prairies and forests.
"We are the first nature preserve to do this," Whitt said. "A lot of people of this generation like this. They are not putting a lot of money into the process of embalming and preparing. It's a different concept."
Unlike a traditional cemetery, the preserve is grown up with tall prairie grasses and flowers, and butterflies and birds enjoy the landscape. It makes for a good place to visit with a loved one after they have passed.
Along with an abundance of walking trails and natural beauty to take in the outdoors, there is plenty of great learning tools for children and adults in the interpretative building. Summer classes are held for students in grades K-8 with activities involving the identification of plants and animal species, learning nature's life cycles and ecosystems and even fun activities of camping and canoeing for older children.
Displays set-up throughout the nature center show different types of rocks and gems that can be found in Ohio, opportunities to touch and feel the textures of nature and much more.
A special viewing room is a favorite among children and adults as they can sit and watch out large, glass windows as nature continues to thrive outside. Birds, deer, groundhogs and raccoons are just a few of the curious animals that might pass by the window.
Clubs on everything from bird watching, to fly-fishing, to a very popular geocaching and nature photography club take place out of the center. An opportunity to learn about nature is just around every corner.
"Our location, at the gates of Amish Country, makes us a great little stop," said Conway. "What we have to offer is a neat destination spot."
Conway foresees a bright future ahead for the Wilderness Center. Neighboring Amish farms make up a vast majority of the rural landscape, and a portion of the Wilderness Center's fields are currently being rented out to an Amish farmer to preserve the rich farmland.
A goal of Conway's is to partner with the neighboring Amish community in order to implement a working, sustainable farm that can be used as an educational tool to the public. "Come visit and stay at a working farm," Conway said. "Stay tuned," he added, noting this project is merely just a vision at the moment.
The Wilderness Center will play host to its largest annual event in October, when it puts on the Enchanted Forest. Families and children are led by "fireflies" on a non-scary trail into the woods. Along the way, they encounter creatures of the night such as Mr. Raccoon and Ms. Spider, who share with guests how they survive in the wilderness. After the trail walk, families come back to the main building to enjoy cider and pretzels.
The Wilderness Center is located at 9877 Alabama Avenue S.W. in Wilmot. Hours of operation are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Walking trails are open every day from dawn till dusk. For more information call toll free (877) 359-5235 or visit www.wildernesscenter.org.