LOS BANOS -- U.S. Fish and Wildlife last week opened a 16,000-square- foot visitor center and office, which is expected to double tourism dollars to the Los Banos `area.
The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex Headquarters and Visitors Center, built with
$9.8 million of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money, opened to the public
Oct. 14 after a blessing from representatives of the Southern Sierra Miwok Nation, the land's original owners.
"Our visitors are very important to us," Marge Kolar, chief of refuges for Region 8, said. Last year, more than 1.3 million people visited California refuges, and 100,000 visited the San Luis refuges. "We expect that this new facility will attract even more visitors; we expect it to increase dramatically," Kolar said.
Each visitor to the refuge will spend an average of $62 locally and will generate about $11 in tax revenue, according to a 2007 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Economics.
The southern end of the center is roughly 5,000 square feet, with several displays of the wetlands' native plants and animals -- each has something to grab, twist or push to make it interactive and appeal to children. The lobby also has a large window across the rear, which serves as a place to view the tule elk.
University of California at Davis professor Steve Greco said the refuge is 11,000 acres of prime habitat, enough to sustain 300 tule elk. He said the last two free-ranging tule elk captured in the Central Valley were done so in 1875 by employees of Los Banos founder Henry Miller. There are no free-ranging herds in the Valley, he said. "It's here that history could be made," Greco said.
John Carlon, president of nonprofit River Partners, said the San Luis center is just the tip of the wildlife iceberg. He said 6,000 trees have been planted on the refuges, which translated into 14,000 hours of employment, as well as the introduction of the Riparian Brush Rabbit.
Carlon praised the center's staff for their work to obtain the funds for the center. "These have been tough, challenging times to get things done," he said.
The center is a less-than-zero energy consumer, meaning the building will produce more energy than it consumes. The building also received a platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, an internationally recognized rating, based on standards for energy conservation, renewable energy production, water efficiency and others.
The refuge is at 7376 S. Wolfsen Road, off Highway 165, about six miles north of Highway 152.