SACO – Park Ranger Janet Mangion has been giving tours at Ferry Beach State Park for 25 years, leading tourists and school children through the rare tupelo tree swamp, the wide range of ecosystems, and along her loved dune grass walkway.

Now after years of sharing this unique enclave of natural wonders, Mangion is getting some help this summer.

“It’s four walls and a dream,” said Jocelyn Hubbell with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands of Ferry Beach State Park’s new nature center.

A $250,000 nature center made possible through more than $100,000 in private donations and $150,000 in federal and state grants will open to the public in mid-July. And Mangion, for her part as the park’s longtime ranger, sees the beautiful natural structure drawing in park visitors for more exciting natural history lessons.

“To connect people with nature, that gets me excited,” Mangion said with a broad smile last week during one of her signature tours.

The center is part of a larger effort by the bureau to spread environmental educational programs to the state’s 32 state parks. Hubbell, the bureau’s new interpretive specialist, was hired as part of that effort. This spring, she is working with three part-time environmental educators to create new programs and generate a different, more exciting buzz at three southern Maine state parks: Vaughan Woods Memorial State Park, Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park and Ferry Beach.

“We want to highlight what’s unique at each. These parks have unique features that you can only get at that park. We want to bring the unseen world to life. What’s underground? What’s in that tree? What is going on in the landscape?” Hubbell said.

Lisha Wedderburn, with the Maine Conservation Corps, will work at Ferry Beach State Park for the next seven months, turning the new nature center into a virtual, hands-on experience that connects with the nature the communities of Saco and Old Orchard Beach, as well as tourists who flock to the golden beaches there.

She will help create new programs that connect park visitors with Ferry Beach park’s unique ecosystems in the tupelo swamp, the dunes, the forest, bogs and Long Pond, which is home to the rare Blandings turtle.

“I’m a pioneer. I like working on new programs. It would be nice to leave my mark, to look back and say, ‘I created that,”‘ said the Georgia native who came to Maine to further her work as an environmental educator.

Of course, Ferry Beach already has an active and unique role in its community, providing education on the state’s diverse natural resources.

That’s why Loranger Middle School teacher Laura Seaver was there with her class last week.

“We’re doing research for the Gulf of Maine Institute’s program (that involves citizen science). There are not enough scientists to gather the data. So we are looking for invasive plants and micro-invertebrate. We go out twice a year to local ponds, and (Ferry Beach) provides easy access to a water body,” Seaver said of the special permission granted to the class for the research.

And Long Pond is but one ecosystem in the park. All told, there are eight diverse ecosystems in the park’s 140 acres.

And each summer, 30,000 visitors pass through to enjoy the peaceful woods that are set apart from the busy hum of summer tourism.

When the nature center opens next month, it will provide a larger stage to spotlight these natural wonders that are thriving at Ferry Beach, despite the fact the park is tucked within the suburban sprawl around it.

“The dune environment is the last untouched dunes in Saco Bay. And the forest is an oasis that is untouched amidst the development going on today. It’s rare, especially along southern Maine beaches,” Mangion said.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph