Planning board approves Wild Walk

TUPPER LAKE – Planning board members seemed pleased to give approval to The Wild Center’s planned new exhibit, the Wild Walk.

“It’s quite a project,” Chairman Jim Larkin said Wednesday night after Wild Center Facilities Manager Dave St. Onge gave the board a presentation on the project.

The Wild Walk would be built in the woods next to the nature museum, which is off Hosley Avenue. The idea is to create the feeling of walking into the treetops through a series of six towers reaching up to 40 feet high and lightly sloping ramps, all connected to features like a giant spiderweb of ropes and netting, a treehouse and a “dead tree” that will show visitors the forest life cycle. Most of the structure, except for the swinging bridges, is designed to be accessible to people in wheelchairs.

When Wild Center officials first envisioned the exhibit, it was going to be centered solely around birds, and the museum went so far as to get a permit from the state Adirondack Park Agency for that project. But that permit lapsed and was revised to reach people of a wider range of ages and interests.

After a museum has been open for a few years, membership and visitor numbers tend to drop off, and a new feature like this is intended to boost those numbers again, explained museum Executive Director Stephanie Ratcliffe. Museum officials also hope the Wild Walk will turn the museum from a rainy-day destination to an all-weather recreation option.

The Wild Center first opened in July 2006. The Wild Walk is set for a two-year buildout, with the infrastructure being completed in the first year and the exhibits worked on for the year after that. Wild Center officials plan to open the Wild Walk to the public in July 2015, though Ratcliffe said they will probably give tours and sneak peaks to certain locals and community groups in the time leading up to that.

The $4 million project won a $1 million state grant in January, and the museum already has about $375,000 invested into the project’s design and engineering.

Since the intention is to give the feeling of walking into the forest canopy, St. Onge said museum officials want to keep vegetation clearing to a minimum.

“We want to preserve as many trees as we can,” St. Onge said.

The Wild Walk would not be visible from the Raquette River or anywhere else nearby, according to tests done for the original APA permit, except for one location on Dugal Road, where binoculars had to be used to spot weather balloons floated at the feature’s intended elevations, St. Onge said.

St. Onge said the Wild Walk would be the first structure of its kind in the Northeast.

“I think this is going to be a real iconic structure that people are going to come a long ways to Tupper Lake just to see,” St. Onge said.

St. Onge said the Wild Walk will be open from June to September, and museum officials intend to install security cameras on it so it can be monitored after hours.

Planning board member Bob Collier, a paramedic for the local rescue squad, asked about the safety of the spiderweb feature. Ratcliffe said there will be layers of ropes and netting to stop anything that falls through the first layer. She said there is a similar feature at the Morris Arboretum in Pennsylvania, and in talks with that facility, there were no safety concerns.

“Safely all along has been a huge design constraint,” Ratcliffe said.

Planning board members were anxious to give the project unanimous approval Wednesday night after they heard about it.

Board member Jim Ellis noted that he was construction committee chairman for The Wild Center when the museum first broke ground, and Larkin mentioned that he was the first person to shovel a load of dirt from the site.

Ratcliffe and St. Onge said they don’t anticipate any problems with getting APA approval, since a project with the same infrastructure and elevations already passed once before, and they’ve been working with APA officials all along to make sure they were working within APA guidelines.

“I feel really confident,” Ratcliffe said.