Site Design for Bird Refuge Visitor Center

Great Salt Lake

The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, is one of the oldest and most celebrated migratory bird refuges in the country. Lying on a major migration flyway, this freshwater U.S. Fish and Wildlife bird refuge created on the delta of Bear River at the Great Salt Lake hosts a huge diversity of migrating birds, attracting visitors and bird watchers from all over the country and the world. A new visitor center had been built in the early 1990s, but was flooded and destroyed before it was opened to the public by historically high lake water levels. After a total closure of the Refuge for over 10 years due to flood damage, a new site was selected for the new visitor center–this time over 12 miles away from the Refuge to assure that no flooding could occur. The new site was adjacent to Interstate 84, and was a flat, arid site devoid of wetlands or migratory birds–or any sense of being on a refuge.

The challenge for the site design consultants was to create a meaningful and memorable ‘refuge’ experience for visitors, many of whom would not continue the additional twelve miles to the actual refuge. The multi-disciplinary design team of landscape architects, architects, engineers and interpretive specialists envisioned a visitor center surrounded by and totally integrated with wetlands. Through creative grading, rerouting of a nearby irrigation distribution of ditch, and collaboration between the team members and the US Fish and Wildlife vegetation experts, a site was developed that succeeded in realizing these goals, resulting in a spectacular building seemingly in the in the middle of the wetlands. Boardwalks, built from salvaged trestle wood from railroad crossings over the Great Salt Lake, guide visitors over the created wetlands to the building entrances, initiating a wetland theme that is continued throughout the interior interpretive areas in the building. Outdoor education areas, trails, and building overlooks all reinforce the ‘wetland’ and ‘refuge’ themes, helping to make the Bear River Visitor’s Center one of the most popular facilities of its kind in the region.

A Stream principal led overall site design and landscape architecture for the project while with Wenk Associates.