Marine reserve to build new interactive exhibits

By next year, the more than 115,000 annual visitors to Moss Beach’s beloved Fitzgerald Marine Reserve will enjoy interactive exhibits and educational displays at a new interpretive center, thanks to a recent infusion of federal funds.

The narrow 3-mile strip, which advocates say was until recently in danger of being “loved to death” by the throngs of tide pool enthusiasts, is San Mateo County’s most-used educational facility — 439 species of marine plants and animals attract 23,000 students from third grade to college each year, according to county officials.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Tom Lantos and Rep. Anna Eshoo worked to secure $669,750 in funding for the center.

San Mateo County Parks Department Director David Holland said the money will kick-start a larger improvement project at the reserve. The $2.5 million plan includes an outdoor classroom and amphitheater and increased signage; the overall project is being funded by local nonprofits as well as federal, state and county agencies. Construction is expected to begin later this year.

Thomas Nieson, retired marine biology professor at San Francisco State University and longtime board member of the nonprofit Friends of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, said he was thrilled by the grant.

The center will allow people who normally wouldn’t be able to easily access the reef — those in wheelchairs — a chance to experience the sea life, he said. It will also offer a library and a place for research. Currently, the reserve has only a parking lot and a small shack for rangers and docents.

Perhaps more importantly, he said, it would funnel people into the center, where docents could teach them about the delicate habitat. More than a year ago, county officials instituted a reservation system for visitors to limit potential damage to the reef.

“Prior to that, there was really no set control of the numbers of people who could be out there at one time,” Nieson said. “Portions of the reef were being trampled to death. There were literally too many footprints.”

Holland said studies commissioned by the parks department found visitors had done no significant damage to the area.

tbarak@examiner.com

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