September 19, 2010 in Outdoors

$27 million visitor center taps interest at Old Faithful

Brett Prettyman Salt Lake Tribune
 
Associated Press photo

Bison pass the new Old Faithful Visitor Education Center in Yellowstone National Park hours before the center’s grand opening.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Like the rest of the crowd gathered for the dedication ceremony of the new Old Faithful Visitor Education Center last month, the namesake was ready for the talk to stop and the touring to start.

Old Faithful, as dependable as ever, decided to cut short the ceremony being held in between the most famous geyser in the world and the new building that bears its name.

Noted Yellowstone historian Paul Schullery was just about to wrap up his keynote speech and the 50-minute program when the spray began.

The crowd turned to watch Old Faithful and a round of applause, seemingly louder than others scattered throughout the ceremony, started.

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Schullery said as the geyser ebbed to a trickle.

With jokes that park officials must have a valve on Old Faithful lingering, the doors of the $27 million Old Faithful Visitor Education Center opened to the public Aug. 25.

Nine-year-old Jack Dretler of Boston was the first one in the building.

“It was really cool when I got inside. I didn’t think it would be this nice inside,” he said.

Once he had quickly toured the 26,000-square-foot building, Jack headed back to the Young Scientist exhibit room, where a floor-to-ceiling geyser model was preparing to erupt.

The model combines heat and pressure to set off an eruption every nine minutes — something more conducive to the attention span of youngsters than the current and approximate 90-minute schedule of Old Faithful.

Jack said he liked being able to see the geysers and hot springs in the thermal area around Old Faithful and then come to the center to learn how they worked.

“The coolest thing was the replica of Old Faithful,” he said. “Being able to see how it works underground and then how it shoots was cool.”

The Dretler family did not know about the opening of the new building when they planned their vacation to Yellowstone, but decided to check it out after seeing information about the dedication in the park’s newspaper.

“This definitely made the trip more memorable. We will always remember this,” said Jack’s father, Tom Dretler.

Adie Langel, a 9-year-old from Gypsum, Colo., also found the Young Scientist room entertaining. She was watching a video of a geyser erupt and trying to figure out the exact duration so she could determine when it might erupt again.

“This is a fun place,” she said. “There is a lot of cool things to check out. It makes you think about how things work.”

That is exactly what officials were hoping to hear from visitors, usually about 2.6 million of them every year.

Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, said educating the public about the wonders of Yellowstone and all the other units of the park service is vital.

“The National Park Service is an educational institution not yet fully recognized,” Jarvis said before the crowd of several hundred gathered for the ceremony. “This park, this facility and these extraordinary exhibits exemplify opportunities to get the National Park Service recognized and, within that, we hope to inspire a new generation of young scientists.”

The idea for revamping the visitors center at Old Faithful surfaced more than a decade ago. Yellowstone officials didn’t just want another building with stuffed animals and they knew it would cost more than the government would want to spend, so they asked for help.

As the official fundraising partner for Yellowstone, the Yellowstone Park Foundation heard the pleas and went to work.

As a result, more than half the $27 million price tag for the impressive building was paid for with private contributions.

“They came to us and said they wanted something special … something with incredible educational exhibits that would help people understand the geothermal features of Yellowstone,” said Karen Bates Kress, president of the Yellowstone Park Foundation. “This building is the result.”

The foundation received seven donations of $1 million and more than 400 pledges from individuals ranging down to $2.

“All of the donations were very important. Even those small ones,” Bates Kress said. “They came from a wide variety of people who just really care about Yellowstone and wanted to be a part of this amazing project.”

While the exhibits within the new building are designed to educate about the geothermal wonders of the park, the center itself also serves as an example for those who care about the environment.

The Old Faithful Visitors Education Center earned a Gold Level standing as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) facility before it opened.

LEED certification is designed to encourage green building with environmental conservation in mind. The new center will use approximately one-third less energy than structures of similar size. Contractors used recyclable material whenever possible, and efficient heating and cooling technology was installed throughout the building.

“Conservation in America has always been a partnership between the government and the people,” said Tom Strickland, assistant secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. “This new visitor center is a stunning example of what can be achieved through public-private partnership to advance the causes of conservation, preservation, and education.”

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