Editorial: Heed call to help environmental center

May 16, 2018 : Greenfield Recorder

Even the people behind the Millers River Environmental Center in Athol seem to admit that their two-decades-old natural history and conservation education operation may be under appreciated.

“What goes on in the historic 1889 schoolhouse at 100 Main Street?” the center’s parent organization, the Athol Bird and Nature Club, posits in its current appeal to the public for donations to extend its outreach to the community.

For nearly two decades, members and friends of the Athol Bird and Nature Club have transformed the former schoolhouse into a vibrant space to foster awareness of natural history, wildlife, land conservation and the human role in our environment’s future, according to the club’s Dave Small.

The center bills itself as a gateway to the natural history and recreational opportunities of the North Quabbin with programs by the Athol Bird and Nature Club, North Quabbin Garden Club, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, and Millers River Watershed Council held at the 100 Main St. center. Field trips and other activities meet at the center before heading out through the region for adventures.

The center is advantageously located at the western edge of downtown Athol near the Alan E. Rich Environmental Park, home of an accessible canoe/kayak dock on the Millers River that was a funded by a state Commonwealth Places grant in 2017. The dock lies at the beginning of the Millers River Blue Trail, a new Watershed Park, and historic Fish Park with its ball fields, tennis courts and bandstand.

Many civic and environmental organizations have regular meetings and workshops at the center including the Athol Bird and Nature Club, North Quabbin Garden Club, North Quabbin Energy, North Quabbin Food Alliance, Millers River Watershed Council, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, North Quabbin Regional Landscape Partnership, New England Equestrian Center of Athol, Friends of the Alan E. Rich Environmental Park, the Millers River Greenway Project and the Town of Athol.

Now the center is turning to the public to help make the two-story brick structure more accessible, opening its collections to more people — a drive worth everyone’s support.

The combination of upgrading the building’s accessibility, improving signage, and the reintroduction of a “Windows on Main” mural project should attract visitors from around the region, organizers say. The mural art will depict the town’s industrial heritage. There are also plans to include an elevator that will provide access to two floors of the center, doubling the usable exhibit space. The club’s extensive natural history collection including birds, mammals, rocks and minerals are enjoyed by many and form the backdrop for educational programming for young and old alike, so improving access will broaden the reach and scope of this outreach education, letting ever more people understand the special natural features to be found in the North Quabbin region.

This project has the potential to boost tourism.

To accomplish this, however, the Athol Bird and Nature Club and its allies are trying to win a matching grant through the state’s Commonwealth Places Initiative. The club hopes to raise $10,000 locally to win a matching $10,000 grant.

The MassDevelopment office and the local outdoors groups see themselves as sharing an appreciation of nature and its many forms, and hope the civic crowdfunding platform Patronicity will help their efforts.

“The Millers River Environmental Center project will highlight Athol’s rich and varied industrial history, while providing increased access for patrons to experience the transformation of this historic schoolhouse,” MassDevelopment President Lauren Liss said of the project. “We’re pleased to support this project, which will help more people learn about the area’s natural history and enjoy new uses of this renovated building.”

And we hope that people in the North Quabbin region and beyond agree and will contribute.