Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

A lesson not in the classroom
By James Peacemaker, Jr., Managing Editor
Mar 15, 2013, 13:24

JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT The James River Ecology School’s new bunkhouse features the latest green technology.

Many children living in urban areas never get a clear view of the stars other than from magazines or computers.

But a partnership of The James River Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aims to change that.

They are wrapping up the finishing touches on the new James River Ecology School located on Presquile National Wildlife Preserve just north of Hopewell in Chesterfield. It is set to open officially next month.

The 1,329-acre island on the James River was created in 1934 when a navigation channel was cut through the base of a peninsula. Nearly 20 years later, it was established as a refuge for migratory birds. The island is largely swamp and marshland and remains relatively isolated from the public with the only access by boat. A ferry pulled by steel cable is used to get supplies and other large items across the navigation channel to the island.
James River Ecology School Manager Jessica Templeton speaks on the boat trip to the preserve.

The island was once used as farmland, but the group wants to reforest the area and plans a tree nursery to help in that effort. There once more than 30 buildings on the island but now only a few remain.

Factories can be seen still be seen across the river, but the occasional plane or helicopter flying overhead are the only things to interrupt the sounds of nature.
James River Association CEO William H. Street shows off the outdoor classroom and canoe landing.

The school will give 2,000 kids a year from fifth through 12th grades a chance to learn more about ecology..

It will allow students to be immersed in nature without a tourist-like atmosphere that you sometimes get at other places such as Yellowstone National Park. You sometimes find “10 cars parked around one buffalo,” said Cyrus Brame, a wildlife refuge specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The James River Ecology School features two main buildings, a learning center and a bunkhouse. While the learning center was built using the frame and foundation of an old Ranger house, the bunkhouse was built from the ground up.
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT The Mekenak Discovery Center has a solar electric panel behind it and also has a solar water heater among its green features.

Each building was specially designed for the school and features green building practices, such as solar water and electricity, reclaimed wood, reflective metal roofs to reduce heat, and energy-efficient windows and appliances. The outside decks use black locust wood, which doesn’t need chemicals to be rot-resistant. The school even has a 14,000-gallon cistern to collect rainwater from the roofs to use for nearly everything but drinking. It is filtered and there will soon be an ultraviolet light installed to kill germs. There is a backup well if the cistern gets low.

To deal with a type of pollution that most people don’t like to think about, the new bunkhouse features a key technology — composting toilets. It uses woodchips and lots of time to break down what people flush, but it still needs to be cleaned out once a year.

The bunkhouse, which will house about 34 students at a time, also has a pair of specially designed stationary bicycles that produce electricity when needed to operate the showers and a special garden to put that water back into the ground.
Contractor J. Wilson Enochs III, left, and architect Patrick Farley look at the graywater garden.

The goal is to create a facility that is completely self-sustaining and minimize its ecological footprint. The facility is connected to the power grid, but the bill was only about $7 a month for the fall. The group hopes to get that number down to zero.

The bunkhouse was built on stilts to give students a good view and a “stronger connection to surroundings,” said Patrick Farley of Watershed Architects.

Building on the island presented its own challenges.

The design had to limit materials because everything had to be transported using the ferry or boat. Small concrete pilings were used instead of a full footer on the bunkhouse. Almost no excavation was done except for where the cistern was buried under the building.
Cyrus Brame, a wildlife refuge specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, speaks during the boat trip.

The design also helped reduce the impact on the environment, Farley said.

The ferry also presented some problems. It broke down several times, and large trusses were difficult to fit on it, said J. Wilson Enochs III, the general contractor.

Another feature added to the island is a 514-foot boardwalk through the marshland that leads to an outdoor classroom and canoe landing. From there, students can take boats down a creek about a mile to the James River. The system is made of recycled materials and can hold up to the occasional flooding.

In addition to seeing the stars, students can see wildlife, including numerous varieties of birds, deer and even the occasional snake. Night walks are planned as well. Staff are trained wildlife medics just in case any problem arises on the isolated island.

The $1.25 million project was made possible with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and thousands of hours put in by volunteers.

The James River offers a unique learning environment for students, not just because of nature, but because of the industry lining its shores as well.

Water could become the oil of the future as resources become more scarce, and the James River could be a model for combining industry and preservation, said William H. Street, CEO of the James River Association.
Kyle Burnette, right, who lives on site, tours the bunkhouse.

The James River Ecology School will celebrate its grand opening April 13 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit or call 804-788-8811.

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