Where Learning Can Come Naturally The Public Got A Look At A Refuge's Plans Foran Environmental Education Center.

Posted: December 07, 1997

Anthony Cusano of Delaware County died without heirs, but with a sizeable estate - $2.5 million - which he directed be used to help children in Philadelphia learn about nature.

A major part of Cusano's legacy - a planned environmental education center at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum - was unveiled to the public last week.

The 25-year-old refuge is the largest freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania. It has 1,200 acres of marshland that straddle the border of Philadelphia and Delaware County near the Philadelphia International Airport.

But development of a state-of-the-art educational center for the refuge was made possible by Cusano's gift of $2.5 million, which represents half of the $5 million budgeted for the design and construction of the facility.

``There is no comparable environmental educational facility currently in the Philadelphia area,'' said refuge manager Dick Nugent.

Nugent has worked at the Tinicum refuge, which is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for 20 years.

The 1,200-acre refuge was created by Congress in 1972 and is home to a large number of birds, fish and animals, including 280 species of birds. During migratory seasons - the spring and fall - thousands of birds can be seen in the refuge. About 100,000 people visit the refuge every year for activities that range from bird-watching and fishing to bicycling and school field trips.

In the early 1970s, Jean Diehl of Folcroft was the president of Concerned Area Residents for the Preservation of the Tinicum Marsh, a group that led a coalition of organizations that persuaded Congress to create the refuge.

``It's like a dream come true,'' she said of the plans for the educational center. Diehl said she thinks the center will teach the same message about the economic benefit of the marsh that helped persuade the public to support the creation of the refuge 25 years ago.

Diehl's personal relationship with Tinicum Marsh also has come full circle. ``When I was a kid - 8, 9, 10 years old - my dad took us out there tramping through the marshes,'' she said. Today two of her children - Josh and Crystal - volunteer at Tinicum.

The new building will have three distinct parts. There will be administrative offices for the refuge personnel, an exhibit area for visitors, and an educational area with classrooms and other teaching facilities.

Architect Muscoe Martin said the designers want to use recycled materials and environmentally sound techniques to construct the facility. Martin is with Susan Maxman Architects in Center City.

``One very interesting component [of the project] is something we are calling the marsh machine,'' he said.

In a process that mimics a marsh in nature, the machine will use a system of greenhouse plants to cleanse the center's wastewater.

``We are going to recycle the water in the building to flush the toilets so we will have a recycled water loop,'' he said. The water cleaned by the marsh machine will also be used in an aquarium with fish and other species.

According to Martin, the machine will be part of the facility's exhibit experience and demonstrate how a marsh like Tinicum removes pollutants from water in nature.

``The single most important mission for the environmental education center is to educate the visitor about how the natural world and urban areas can coexist in a mutually beneficial way'', said project manager William P. Becker of Arena & Co. in Center City.

He said that the intent of the facility is to serve people who already visit the marsh and are knowledgeable about that environment, as well as attract new visitors unfamiliar with Tinicum.

After visitors have gotten information from the exhibits and classrooms, Becker said ``the objective is to get them out in the marsh armed with some knowledge so they will understand what they are seeing.''

In addition to the money contributed by the estate of Anthony Cusano, money is being raised for the project from charitable foundations, large corporations and local people and businesses by the Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Washington.

The foundation has agreed to match Cusano's gift with money raised from those sources, but the project's planners may need to raise additional money to fully implement their designs.

``The plans we have developed probably cannot be realized within the $5 million budget,'' said Becker. But he said much of the plan would be completed under that budget and additional funding would enable them to implement the entire design.

Construction is set to begin next spring, and the educational center should be completed one year later, in time for visitors to enjoy the migration of birds passing through the refuge.

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