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NATURE CENTER RISING ON PENN DIXIE SITE

A major outdoor education/nature center is developing here, and while it is underfunded now, it is rising on a foundation 380 million years old.

"Of course it's going to take some time," said Jerold Bastedo, executive director of the Hamburg Natural History Society, whose gem is the old Penn Dixie quarry off Big Tree Road (near South Park Avenue) -- but "time" is relative to a geologist.

Monday through Friday, the site will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for fossil collecting and tours of the facility, which so far consists of parking lots, 1,400 feet of paved, wheelchair- and stroller-accessible trail, and portable potties. A cadre of enthusiastic volunteers will help visitors find the Devonian period fossils the site is world famous for producing after every rainfall.

In time, as the society raises about $3 million, a new headquarters building with classrooms, meeting rooms, storage space -- and plumbing -- will go up; more trails will be paved or boardwalked so that the two fossil pits, the ponds and the eventually to be restored wetlands will all be easily accessible. And a new astronomy pad will be built. The center already occasionally conducts stargazing events.

"Penn Dixie quarry began mining shale here in the 1960s," Bastedo said. "By the early '70s we knew it was a rich source of middle Devonian fossils -- trilobites, cephalopods, crinoids -- I don't know who told me about it, but I began leading field trips here for the Buffalo Science Museum, and when the quarry closed a few of us believed it was too valuable to let it stay a light industrial site."

Thus was born the local society -- 60 people who ponied up $10 each. In time the Town of Hamburg came aboard, rezoned the area "park/recreation," and the society grew, with an emphasis on geology and fossil hunting. Today it has members in about 30 states and several foreign countries.

Last year it offered programs that reached 70,000 people.

"That's 10 times what the 'cultural tourism' folks estimated came to Frank Lloyd Wright's Graycliff and the Darwin Martin House, combined," Bastedo said. With a little help in outreach, he hopes to tap the 16 million annual Niagara Falls visitors.

A lot more than fossils is going on here: Birding and nature walks, astronomy and a variety of kids' science camps for ages 8-12 are slated this year, including "Triple Trek" that will take kids to Woodlawn Beach State Park for a day, sandwiched between two days at Penn Dixie and two days at Tifft Nature Center.

Bastedo believes there is a need for this nature center despite the fact Tifft does a decent job in outdoor education, Beaver Meadow is busy six days a week year-round, and New York State Parks programs, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and the Jamestown Audubon Society help us learn about the natural world,

"There are more than 40 nature education sites within easy reach of Buffalo," he said, "and each one of them has a slightly different emphasis. All of them also preserve open space, as well as teach people something about that particular ecosystem.

"We want to do more with wetlands, we need to build that headquarters/classroom building, and we need to do more site development -- trails, landscaping, a lot of vegetative restoration.

"But the fact is we also have fossils. And anyone can come next week and pick them off the ground."

Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for kids. After next week, the center will be open Saturdays starting May 7 and weekdays as well by late June. Members can enter the place year round, for hiking and skiing in the winter. A family membership is $35. Stop by next week and someone will be happy to explain it all.

Call 627-4560 or visit www.penndixie.org for directions and a full schedule of events, which range from lectures to cruises to a fund-raising golf tournament.

e-mail: yvel@adelphia.net