Wetlands Centre has connected people with nature for a decade

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Late 2023 marked the 10-year anniversary of the opening of Marquette’s Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, which shares the unique biology, ecology and geology of the Driftless Area through outdoor exploration, wildlife displays and educational programming. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Driftless Area Wetlands Centre Director Alicia Mullarkey encourages open-ended, child-led play when families visit the facility and during youth enrichment programs. “Kids are free to dig, free to collect, free to build forts, free to play in the mud, free to explore,” she said.

By Audrey Posten


The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre has been connecting people with nature—and one another—for a decade.


Late 2023 marked the 10-year anniversary of the opening of the Marquette facility, which shares the unique biology, ecology and geology of the Driftless Area through outdoor exploration, wildlife displays and educational programming.


Outside, visitors can spy geese, turtles and frogs and even dip for critters in the wetland, then view birds and insects in the native plantings. A nature play trail offers several activity stations. Inside the Wetlands Centre are aquariums with turtles and snakes, a fossil and mineral collection and even a nature activity nook. “It’s a hard thing to get something like this off the ground, especially for a small town,” said Wetlands Centre Director Alicia Mullarkey. “I’m very impressed the group of people who built this place had the vision and forethought. The fact this building has been here 10 years and the wetland was reconstructed, there have been a lot of changes. Having that infrastructure here has provided tons of opportunities.”


The idea for the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre predates the opening of the building five years, when the project was pitched, among several others, as part of Marquette and McGregor’s participation in the Iowa Great Places program. State agencies would provide financial and technical support to those looking to improve their areas, and funding was awarded on a match basis. 


“We submitted our first application in 2007 and didn’t make the final cut with a community wellness center,” recalled Rinda Ferguson, a driver of the project who remains active with the non-profit Friends of the Marquette Driftless Area. “Great Places was really looking for something authentic to the area, to get more tourism and people here.”


A nature center was submitted the following year, proposed on a city-owned site along Highway 18 that was purchased many years prior from the railroad. It was a brownfield. Not only had the railroad been dumping there, but debris from construction of the highway was left too.


“When this started, there were a lot of comments of ‘about time somebody fixed that property up,’” said Ferguson. “What better use of a dumping ground than to make it what it is now.”


“It’s come full circle nature wise, with respect to it going from a brownfield to a wetland that is diverse with animals and plants,” agreed Mullarkey. “It was definitely an ‘if you build it, they will come’ sort of thing with nature. Now, look at all the insects and animals that use it.” 


Organizers hoped the Wetlands Centre would not only reactivate a disused area, but drive tourism and interest kids in the outdoors—to replicate their own childhood experiences in the Driftless.


“I was born and raised in McGregor and we lived near the Methodist Church park behind the library. We used that park, but 90 percent of our time was spent on the bluffs, making forts, picking berries,” Ferguson shared. “When we started, part of how we got this idea was because kids were struggling. They needed to get outside.”


In 10 years, Mullarkey believes that goal has been accomplished.


The Wetlands Centre welcomes visitors on an individual basis, but also hosts field trips and offers programming, including preschool-age Wetland Explorers every Wednesday from 10:30 a.m. to noon, summer and winter break day camps and an after school program in the fall. Activities encourage open-ended, child-led play.


“I know the value of learning through nature play with young kids. Kids need freedom, and this place provides a sense of freedom,” Mullarkey said. “We help them along, we help parents along, but kids are free to dig, free to collect, free to build forts, free to play in the mud, free to explore.”


“They learn so much,” she continued, “and we learn so much from them. As grown-ups, we don’t always see the things they see.”


Mullarkey believes an important ingredient to the Wetlands Centre’s success is not just its youth enrichment, but that programs drive kids to the facility frequently.


“You have to have frequency for it to matter to kids, for that connection to happen,” she explained. “They start out at a field trip, then a summer camp, then come back for the after school program. Or maybe they come to an event. Kids that were in that first Wetland Explorers program are in middle school now.”


“Once they get here and spend some time here, kids really, really love it. They want to come back,” Ferguson added. “That’s awesome. Because, to save nature, you have to love nature.”


The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre isn’t just for kids, though. It’s grown into a community gathering space with a variety of annual events, including Astronomy Night, a Welcome Spring Egg Hunt, Dino Day, Hawk Watch, a visit with Santa and a Friday night farmers market. Staff have partnered with other agencies and local experts such as geologist Phil Burgess, bird researcher Jon Stravers and Robert Vavra of Maiden Voyage Tours. Area resident Mike Trudo supplies many of the animal specimens. 


“There are so many incredible resources in people and the power of bringing people together and connecting to nature. Having people come together to celebrate that or learn more about where they live, what’s around them, talking about some of the issues facing us,” Mullarkey said. “That’s the vision of our board and non-profit: hands-on, real experiences. To do something that’s not being done.”


Mullarkey said the Wetlands Centre averages 7,500 visitors per year, a conservative estimate that doesn’t account for people who stop when staff aren’t there or who don’t come inside the building.


She and part-time staff, including long-time employee Jan Stavroplus, manage operations and programming, with assistance from summer interns and volunteers. 


Ferguson called Mullarkey the “glue” that holds it all together.


“If it wasn’t for her grant writing and stay-at-it attitude, this facility wouldn’t be as improved as it has been. She has taken it forward to what we dreamed it would be,” she said. “She also makes it very welcoming. A lot of people find a home here.” 


Mullarkey credited partnership with the MFL MarMac School District, who not only helped get the facility off the ground, but regularly brings field trips and participates in the after school program and School of the Wild for fifth graders. Teachers have served on the Wetlands Centre board and led programs.


The city of Marquette has been important too, in operating the facility this past decade. 


“That’s pretty impressive for a small community like this,” Mullarkey said, “and being part of a small government entity like the city of Marquette, we can do things that are more community based. It’s suited to the community’s needs here.”


Establishment of the non-profit Friends of the Marquette Driftless Area has also been vital in applying for, and receiving, grants that fund additions to the Wetlands Centre as well as programming and part-time staff. The friends group also covers any costs to put on events.


Ferguson said money is raised through fundraisers, gift shop sales and donations from individuals and businesses. 3M has been a supporter since the Wetlands Centre’s inception.


“Employees and retirees do volunteer hours and 3M sends non-profit funds for it. We have a non-profit board member who gets $2,000 per year for their service on the board. Then we have the employee-company match, and we’ve gotten four 3M Hometown Grants,” she noted.


Upper Mississippi Gaming Corporation helped with construction of the facility and has continued to support the Wetlands Centre in smaller projects, like interpretive displays. The friends group has been awarded seven Clayton County Foundation for the Future grants, and has further been supported by funding from Alliant Energy, Wellmark and the Foundation of Cornerstone Communities.


Mullarkey said the Wetlands Centre plans to continue fostering its youth enrichment programs, core events and community engagement.


“Every year we pick a project and keep going. There’s a lot of sustained effort with grants and developing content,” she remarked.


Ferguson is proud to see how far the Wetlands Centre has come, and where it will continue to go.


“I’m proud of the center and proud that we, as the Marquette community, are contributing to the greater good of the area. People have really used this place,” she said.


To learn more about the Wetlands Centre and how you can get involved, visit www.driftlessareawetlandcentre.com or the “Driftless Area Wetlands Centre” Facebook page, or contact (563) 873-3537 or driftlessareawetlandcentreia@gmail.com.

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