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New Nature Center Focuses on Upper Newport Wetland


Much like the ancient Native American cliff dwellings in the Arizona desert, a new nature center in Newport Beach has been built into a bluff.

The $8-million Upper Newport Bay Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center opens Saturday. The smallish center--with its emphasis on educational exhibits, outreach, entertainment and classroom learning--is mere feet from the Upper Newport Bay Reserve and National Preserve.

Except for its triangular roof--which lies even with the parking lot--the facility can't be seen from street level.

Visible, however, is the lush estuary below.

There, saltwater and freshwater marshes pock the preserve. Coastal sage, pickle weed, cordgrass and endangered salt marsh bird's beak flourishes in abundance. Hundreds of migratory birds, such as the light-footed clapper rail, rest and nest after marathon flights.

"The Upper Newport reserve is one of the most important wetland estuaries that we've been able to save along the Southern California coast," said Jean Watt, president of Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks and a former Newport Beach councilwoman. "This center will help people understand the need for such places."

Wetlands, with their thick vegetation, help filter polluted water coming in from inland watersheds before it reaches the ocean, Watt said. In Upper Newport Bay alone, two notoriously polluted channels release their contents: the Santa Ana Delphi Channel and San Diego Creek. Most of Southern California's wetlands have been replaced by development.

With the Interpretive Center so close to the protected wetland, the teaching becomes that much more dramatic and firsthand, said Patti Schooley, a county operations supervisor for coastal facilities.

Perhaps no two people will take greater satisfaction in the Interpretive Center's opening than Frank and Francis Robinson, the now octogenarian couple whose landmark battle against the Irvine Co. over Upper Newport Bay more than 30 years ago helped create the wetland preserve and spur a fledgling environmental consciousness in Orange County.

When the county Board of Supervisors in 1974 voted not to allow the Irvine Co. to develop the land, then company President Raymond Watson proclaimed that "the project got caught up in a change of values."

Architecturally, the Interpretive Center's design reflects a desire to be environmentally sensitive. There's a reason why it is not visible from the corner of Campus and University drives.

"We wanted to preserve as much open space as possible, so we tucked it underneath," said Ron Yeo, the Corona del Mar architect.

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