ROCKLAND, Maine — Although the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge complex has been doing plenty of research — even having interns live on Maine islands for months at a time tagging birds — the complex hasn’t been doing such a great job at sharing that information with the public, said Beth Goettel, the refuge’s manager.
That’s about to change.
The refuge complex, which is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recently bought a 9,600-square-foot property in Rockland right off Main Street, which will be used as a visitors center and as the refuge complex headquarters.
It will take until October to fully move out of the “tiny” Rockport offices, which are located on a dead-end side street, into the white two-story, $690,000 building on Water Street.
Once moved in, Goettel and the other midcoast employees of the refuge complex will begin working to create museumlike exhibits for the public to learn from.
“It gives people a view of our work,” Goettel said. “If we had that here, we could give them a glimpse of what we’re doing. Right now people don’t know what we’re doing.”
The biggest benefit to the new location is visibility, Goettel said.
“It’s great for us,” she said. “Our refuge is different. Because our islands are offshore, most people don’t know we exist.”
Jane Hopwood, chairwoman of Friends of Maine Seabird Islands, said most wildlife refuge visitors centers act as a guide to what people will see when they walk through the refuge, but when the land is split among 53 islands, everything changes.
“We need to bring the island experience here because not everyone gets to go to a Maine island. It’s a very special experience,” Hopwood said.
Along with the exhibits, the refuge complex is planning to use some of the space for classrooms. There, staff will hold workshops and teach schoolchildren about seabirds. Staff also will use the space to inform local teachers about island wildlife, and the teachers can use the information in their curriculums.
Most of the islands the refuge complex owns are not open to the public. Thousands of birds nest on the islands, which extend from Duck Island near Portsmouth, N.H., to Old Man Island near Cutler.
“The birds wouldn’t be able to raise chicks with that kind of disturbance,” Goettel said.
The visitors center will have contact information for many private boat tours so people can see the birds, including puffins, up close.
The building, complete with white columns by the entrance and a playground in the back, shadowed by hedges, used to be a day care center for MBNA. This worked in the refuge complex’s favor because it was ready with the proper fire alarms, handicapped-accessible doors and more. A few adjustments have to be made to go from day care to a seabird visitors center before October. The bathrooms, for instance, all have low toilets for toddlers. The bathroom doors are cropped so passers-by can see in. “Most adults wouldn’t be comfortable with that,” Goettel said.
The move has been years in the making. Plans for a visitors center first popped up in 2005. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to get away from leasing properties, Goettel said. When Goettel started looking for places near a boat ramp and with enough room for offices, she stumbled on the Water Street location and thought it was perfect.
Brian Benedict, the deputy refuge manager of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, said he looks forward to moving close to Main Street.
“Being part of the downtown area was one of the big draws of being here,” Benedict said.
“It’s complementary to the other museums,” Goettel chimed in.
“This is a dream come true,” Hopwood added. “It’s good for us. It’s good for the refuge. It’s good for Rockland.”
For more information about the Maine Coastal Island National Wildlife Refuge, call 236-6970.