NASELLE - Rather than a placard with paragraphs of dry text describing a recently restored stream, imagine elliptical forms focusing the babbling sound of the healthy flow toward a shaded bench and a poem about water.
Instead of a sign board with faded photographs depicting the nesting habits of marbled murrelets, picture a pathway lined with cedar bark that climbs into the trees, putting visitors on a wing with the threatened seabird.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managers have plans to build a trail that employs art and landscape architecture in place of the standard, often unremarkable signs that line the typical interpretive nature walk. They enlisted the help of students from the University of Washington Public Art Program to design a series of "interpretive nodes," some of which will become part of a first-of-its-kind trail in the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.
The students presented their proposals to staff at the refuge headquarters recently.
"We get so used to looking at placards with writing on them that we sometimes gloss them over," said Johnny Hartsfield, a graduate student studying landscape architecture. He called the artistic approach "innovative," and said he hopes it will catch attention and encourage visitors to return.
Hartsfield, 26, stands before an elaborate scale model of the overlook - a "symbolic nest" - he designed. He points out features such as cedar fencing, which would screen visitors from wildlife, allowing them to get close without scaring the creatures away.
More scale models - a dreamscape of art and nature - are arranged along a map of the planned trail, sketched in chalk on the concrete floor of a large garage at the headquarters.
The trail, which organizers hope to begin building this summer, would start at the headquarters parking lot on the east shore of Willapa Bay. Designed with visitors who don't leave their cars for long in mind, the half-mile trail will lead through tidal mudflats, marshes and small meadows, into a thick coastal rainforest.
Michelle Abanes, an undergraduate art student from Silverdale, said her family probably wouldn't view the refuge headquarters as a place to stop and linger. She wanted to design something that would lure people into the site and make it more inviting. She envisions comfortable chairs made from tree stumps, arranged in a half-circle.
The students gathered inspiration for their proposals by visiting the site and researching the ecology of the area, from tides to rainfall to salamander mating habits. The body of work they produced touches on a variety of topics, including amphibians, native flora such as the red alder, and native chum salmon, which returned to Headquarters Creek in 2001 for the first time in more than 60 years after an intense five-year restoration effort.
Volunteers began restoring the 3,000-yard stream in 1997 by removing an old tide gate that had blocked fish passage there for more than half a century. The stream, which had been "channelized" into a fast-flowing conduit, was made to meander once again. They placed gravel in Headquarters Creek - a candidate for renaming, students and refuge staff said - to create spawning beds for fish. Twelve chum salmon returned to the stream in 2001. Last fall, 300 fish came back.
The trail is meant to celebrate this success.
John Young, an art professor and chairman of the university's public art program, said the students have tried to "explain what's going on biologically through art rather than words."
Young said he knows of no other trail like it in the United States. John Ivie, a visual information specialist with the fish and wildlife service, said it was certainly the first of its kind in the National Wildlife Refuge System, which includes more than 500 refuges nationwide.
The refuge system, started by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, celebrated its 100th birthday March 14. Refuge staff buried a time capsule as part of the nationwide centennial celebration. The Willapa Refuge was established in 1937.
Arthur Shine, outdoor recreation planner for the refuge, said the students' work has taken fish and wildlife staff "outside our normal realm of natural resources and biology."
The students were pleased and impressed that a federal agency was willing to give them the chance to go out on a limb.
"It's an excellent opportunity," said Megan Wilson, a graduate student in landscape architecture. "To have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency, say, 'Challenge us,' was pretty spectacular."
Wilson designed a stream-side bench with the elliptical forms reflecting the water's sound.
She said the experience - including presentations to a selection panel of five refuge staff members - was a valuable "foot in the door" for students trying to create professional portfolios.
The refuge has about $20,000 to build the trail and implement some of the students' proposals.
"It is going to be very difficult to decide which projects we can run with," Shine said.