Science group, wildlife refuge vie for Canaan building

Courtesy photo
Completed in 2009, Canaan Valley Institute’s $8 million Research and Education Center, near Davis, is now being sought by the National Youth Science Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Courtesy photo
A greenhouse and a wetland are used to treat water after initial use in the Canaan Valley Institute building.

On the fringe of the boggy wetlands north of Davis, in Tucker County, a turf battle is taking shape.

The National Youth Science Foundation wants to use a state-of-the-art “green” technology building as its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education Center. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants the $8 million, 28,000-square-foot building to serve as a new visitor center and administrative headquarters for the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

The building was built by the nonprofit Canaan Valley Institute with funding from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Completed in 2009, it was built with locally sourced, recycled and sustainable materials and uses a self-contained sewage system with a greenhouse and a wetland to filter and reuse wastewater, qualifying it for a silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The building houses a 3,500-square-foot conference hall with seating for 120, a 1,000-square-foot research lab capable of supporting four researchers, a 39-station computer lab and a 1,000-square-foot teaching lab.

Canaan Valley Institute, which helps communities across the region with stream restoration, conservation and remediation projects ranging from streambank erosion control to small-scale sewer projects, has hosted a number of workshops and conferences at the facility, including several National Youth Science Foundation programs.

However, the Institute’s federal grants have fallen off since longtime Democratic congressman Alan Mollohan, a booster, was defeated in 2010. That, and limited business opportunities, prompted the institute to ask NOAA to be relieved of responsibility for the building and another, smaller research building. The institute wants to keep a suite of offices in the larger building.

In 2006, when plans for the $8 million building were being finalized, the Canaan Valley Institute and the National Youth Science Foundation signed an agreement recognizing their shared educational interests and giving the NYSF “first call for the use of proposed CVI facilities, after the needs of CVI are met.” The 2006 agreement also gives the NYSF first rights to take over the new facilities and operate them at its own cost, should the institute “cease to exist or become inactive on the property.”

In 2009, the institute agreed to sell the NYSF 111 acres on the opposite side of the Blackwater River from the building in question. The land will encompass the NYSF’s planned $50 million National Center for Youth Science Education, a complex designed to inspire youth from across the nation to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, and will become the permanent home for its flagship program, the National Youth Science Camp, held in West Virginia since 1963. The $301,000 the NYSF spent to buy the tract was used by the Canaan Valley Institute to cover the cost of the building’s “Eco-Machine” wastewater system and to buy $152,632 worth of telecommunications hardware and a $5,564 security system.

In a 2009 letter approving the sale, NOAA acknowledged the NYSF’s right to use the institute facilities if the institute pulled out, according to NYSF officials.

In August, after learning that the institute wanted out of its obligation to pay for and take care of the building, the NYSF raised $200,000 to renovate and operate the institute facilities for the next two years, and it asked NOAA officials for authorization to take over the facilities “based on the standing agreement with CVI.”

Instead, NOAA, in October, gave the Fish and Wildlife Service the first option to take over the two buildings and 37 acres that make up the Canaan Valley Institute campus.

Fish and Wildlife manages the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a 16,500-acre expanse of wetlands and forested hillsides that stretches from the outskirts of Davis to Canaan Valley State Park. The refuge’s headquarters and visitor center is in a converted restaurant, the former Oriskany Inn, along W.Va. 32, in the heart of Canaan Valley.

“Our current building has a number of maintenance issues that would take quite a bit of money to repair,” said Ron Hollis, who was named superintendent of the refuge in August. “We have a very small visitor center. Our media room holds maybe 20 people, maximum.”

A move into the institute building would provide more room for all refuge operations and would allow the refuge to expand its outreach programs and “do more work with conservation-minded partners” using the building’s laboratory and classroom space, Hollis said.

Ronald G. Pearson, chairman of the NYSF’s board of trustees, said Fish and Wildlife was given first option to take over the CVI property because, unlike the NYSF, it is a federal agency.

“NOAA has never said why they do not feel bound by the use agreement NYSF has with Canaan Valley Institute, who actually owns the building subject to the remaining 24-year federal reversionary interest,” said Pearson, federal bankruptcy judge for West Virginia’s Southern District. “During this time, CVI must have a way to cover all operating and upkeep costs. Expanding STEM education by the NYSF is one way to cover all existing operational costs, and was the foundation of an NYSF-CVI use agreement. It is a detailed document and both parties have been performing under it. CVI has an outstanding staff who often have participated in West Virginia student STEM programs offered by NYSF.”

Earlier this month, state Superintendent of Schools Michael Martirano notified Pearson that he was recommending to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the state Board of Education that the institute facilities near Davis, if operated by the NYSF for project-based STEM learning programs, should “be selected as a key hub for STEM education in West Virginia.”

Pearson and Joseph McCauley, chief of realty for Fish and Wildlife, spoke at a Tucker County Commission meeting on the future of the facilities in Davis on Dec. 3.

During the meeting, according to the Parsons Advocate, McCauley said that, if his agency assumes operation of the institute facilities, it would work to develop partnerships with the institute, the NYSF and other organizations. He also said it would cost more than $1 million in maintenance costs to make the existing refuge headquarters safe, sanitary and energy-efficient.

The NYSF, if allowed to assume operation of the CVI building, “could help hundreds of West Virginia students advance their STEM skills starting next year,” Pearson said. STEM education programs provided by the NYSF at CVI “can be offered for a fraction of the cost state and county systems would have to pay for efforts of similar impact, but must be offered for the long haul,” he said.

If the NYSF took control of the CVI complex, foundation officials say, it would spend 2015 raising nearly $2 million to complete renovations at the main building; build seasonal housing for 200; upgrade food service to make it possible to feed 200 meals three times daily; reconfigure office space to provide education space during the summer and indoor housing for up to 40 students, and formalize the designation of the Davis campus as a hub in the state’s STEM learning network. The first stage would serve about 1,000 students during its first year while creating at least 10 year-round jobs and 40 seasonal jobs.

The second stage of development, to be completed by 2020, involves securing nearly $30 million to build new four-season facilities on the NYSF’s 110-acre tract on the south side of the Blackwater River, including a dining hall and student, staff and guest housing. Employment would rise to 20 or more year-round jobs, and the number of students served would rise to 3,500.

By allowing the NYSF to use the institute site and begin operating a STEM education hub, “new jobs will be created in the Davis-Canaan Valley area and several hundred West Virginia students a year would have the option for high-quality math and science education using some of the teaching methods that have made the National Youth Science Camp so successful,” Pearson said. The CVI buildings would “become the initial buildings for what can become the National Center for Youth Science Education for Science Camp programs.”

A written public-comment period on the plan to re-purpose the CVI building as the new wildlife refuge headquarters ends Friday. After comments are taken into account, the Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether to move forward with plans to assume operation of the building or not.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

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