Lake Thoreau to be buzzing with activity

By Ed Kemp | Hattiesburg American

HATTIESBURG – The still waters of Lake Thoreau can be deceptive.
Things are stirring, and we’re not just talking about the complex ecosystem beneath the lake’s tranquil surface.
In the not-too-distant future, there will be cows. More kids. Even a Lake Thoreau Environmental Center app for your computer tablet.
“Lake Thoreau is going to be an active place,” said University of Southern Mississippi biology professor Mac Alford, before pausing to correct himself. “Well, it’s already active, but with all things we have planned for classes and the public, it’s going to be even more active – that’s for sure.”
Currently, property-owner USM is constructing an $800,000 natural sciences collection building – started in the spring – that will hold its herbarium (plant collection) and fish specimen collection.
Both are currently housed on campus in Vann Hall, slated to be demolished for the construction of the school’s new residential community, Century Park II.
By October, these collections are scheduled to be moved 10 minutes up the road to the 291-acre nature center. The building also will have a classroom.
“For us, it will really promote our research at Lake Thoreau,” said Alford, the herbarium curator, who frequently takes his graduate and undergraduate classes to poke around the piney woods.
“For teaching, it’s close and it’s semi-wild,” he said. “We don’t have to drive very far to see a lot of cool things.”
Cool things like cardinals and gopher tortoises.
Next month, biologists will reintroduce 15 to 20 piney wood cattle, once an area staple, into the Longleaf Preserve portion of Lake Thoreau to help manage vegetation.
And, in tandem with raising the building, workers are also installing infrastructure for water, sewer and electricity.
It’s the beginning of the enactment of the lake’s 2009 master plan, which includes a brick-and-mortar environmental education center.
“We’re accomplishing the first step,” Physical Plant Director Chris Crenshaw said.
The Lake Thoreau Environmental Center is the combination of two properties: a 131-acre preserve left to the university by former English professor Leon Eubanks and the 160-acre Longleaf Preserve.
USM officials opened the center to the public in spring 2011 for educational and recreational purposes.
Lake Thoreau director Mike Davis said he sees the new special collections building as a key potential catalyst for future research funding grants.
“Having a new facility makes it easier to get these grants,” said Davis, a biology professor. “Over the past three years or four years, we’ve had somewhere over $1.2 million just in grants that target the center. It’s really starting to blossom.”
For example, two USM biology professors, Kristy Halverson and Aimee Thomas (Thomas has since moved to Loyola University in New Orleans), recently snagged a two-year $250,000 National Science Foundation pilot grant for science education.
The grant will fund science education field days this spring for two Hattiesburg Public School District middle school classes, as well as training workshops for volunteer naturalists from the community.
The money also will help advance the tablet app, which Halverson said will have an augmented reality feature when fully developed with the help of additional NSF funds.
“It will have quizzes, videos and all sorts of fun stuff,” Halverson added.
Davis said Lake Thoreau is in a prime location for this kind of science education, with access to 20,000 schoolchildren in Forrest and Lamar counties alone.
“Long term we want to see this as a premier nature center for the southern part of the state,” Davis said.
But he said that he’s unsure where the funding will come for brick-and-mortal education building, now just a far-off vision.
USM requested, and did not receive, $2.5 million in Lake Thoreau upgrades from the Legislature last year.
The school did not put Lake Thoreau on its top 10 list of funding requests for the 2013 legislative session.
“Our funding is primarily going to have to come from donor funds,” Davis said. “You know, it kind of sells itself. If I had someone here on a summer morning overlooking the lake with the fog rolling off the water, I wouldn’t have too much problem convincing him to sign on.”
Avid birder Ron Blackwell, of the Pine Woods Audubon Society, said he likes the progress Lake Thoreau has made in the past year.
“The people who have been working out at Lake Thoreau have done a great job so far,” Blackwell said.
He said Lake Thoreau reminds him of his days as a 6-year-old in the early 1960s when he moved from Hattiesburg to Oak Grove and found himself with “4,000 acres of forest to play around in.”
“It just opened my eyes to nature,” he said. “I would love to let Oak Grove kids get a taste of that. They probably won’t live in the woods, but they’ll get a sense of the way that area used to be.”