(Photo courtesy of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Complex Facebook page)
The renovated waterfowl observation building and a new outdoor photography blind at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Visitor's Center, near Decatur, Ala., should open in November after undergoing more than seven months of construction, a park official told the Decatur Daily.
A new hiking trail to the east of the center also is on track to open next month, but a park official told the Decatur Daily that renovations on the visitor center off Alabama Highway 67, southwest of Decatur, will not be completed before spring 2023.
The renovations and construction began last March as part of a $5.4 million project paid for by a federal grant approved almost four years ago, according to Wheeler NWR Manager Ricky Ingram. He said the project's contractors have been battling supply chain issues while trying to finish work by next month.
"It's been very hard to get some materials timely," he explained to the Decatur Daily. "For instance, windows for this visitor center … from the date of ordering, you're six months out with windows and doors. Contractors are all booked up because this is a booming area, and then you throw in all the COVID-19 stuff before that. We've had a lot of delays but we're going pretty good now."
Recently, a construction crew was seen performing siding work on the new 500-sq.-ft. outdoor photography blind with 13 windows overlooking fields stretching for multiple acres. The blind is found just south of the visitor center.
"They've been doing finishing touches on the photo blind and that's really going to be something our wildlife photographers will be interested in because it will provide a covered blind that doesn't have glass in the windows, essentially," said David Young, a Wheeler NWR park ranger.
Ingram said the photography blind will be able to hold up to 30 people at one time.
"All these fields out here will be full of cranes around November so that's why we're shooting to open some of these facilities on Nov. 1," he said. "I can't promise anything, but that's what we're hoping."
Ingram added that previously, wildlife photographers did not have a proper location to take photos of birds and other animals at the refuge. He said he hopes the new photography blind will attract more photographers and enthusiasts to the 35,000-acre refuge situated along both the north and south banks of the Tennessee River. The park sees an average of 600,000 visitors a year.
Work to Take Place at Several Sites
Young told the Decatur newspaper that the refuge's main goal was to have the observation building, photography blind and trail open in time for the annual Festival of the Cranes on Jan. 13-15, 2023 — a celebration of the thousands of sandhill cranes and about a dozen whooping cranes that winter at Wheeler NWR each year.
The refuge's visitor center itself will not be open until "possibly" next spring, he said, along with a new outdoor education pavilion that will be built near the welcome center's parking lot.
"That will be used for school visits and environmental education programming," Young explained.
According to Ingram, Wheeler NWR's renovated visitor center will feature a more spacious bookstore than before, and a large handicapped-accessible ramp is slated to be paved leading up to the front door. The building also will have an indoor classroom remodeled to be bigger to allow staff to instruct more groups of students in tandem with the addition of the education pavilion.
"We'll have our staff taking school groups outside here for various programs and things," he noted. "We can have one group in the indoor classroom and one group in the pavilion, and we'll be able to give more in-depth instruction to the students with an extra classroom."
Young told the Decatur Daily that a new hiking and biking trail is planned to be built on existing roads at Wheeler NWR and should open shortly after the observation building and photography blind are finished. The winding 5-mi. trail, located east of the welcome center near the main entrance, will be paved with fine gravel to make bike travel smoother.
During the construction and renovation at the wildlife refuge, according to Ingram, the Flint Creek Nature Trail boardwalk and fishing pier on the other side of Ala. 67 from the visitor center will each remain open.
In addition, he said all trails at the refuge are currently open except for the Atkeson Cypress Trail beside the Wheeler NWR visitor center. He did not yet know when that trail will reopen, but the parking lot at the center is slated to be accessible in November.
"Basically, the rest of the 35,000 acres is open for hiking, canoeing, boating, and bicycling just like it is every year," Ingram explained.
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