WABASHA, Minn. — Thirty years ago, the National Eagle Center was a small, newly established environmental organization and bald eagles were an endangered species.
On Sunday, Aug. 18, as the center marked its 30th anniversary, eagle populations have rebounded and the center's leaders are eyeing an expansion of the 14,000-square-foot interpretive center and museum.
The eagle center held a community celebration Sunday to mark its three-decade milestone and to reflect on changes to the center and the raptors it celebrates. It was also a thank you from the center to the community that has supported it, said Rolf Thompson, National Eagle Center executive director.
The event included food vendors, children’s activities and words from state and local leaders. Hundreds of people attended the festivities.
“It’s the community that birthed this place,” he said.
Emily Durand, mayor of Wabasha, said the center has become part of the community’s identity. During a recent family trip to northern Wisconsin, people connected the community with the center.
“When I said I’m from Wabasha, they immediately brought up the National Eagle Center,” Durand said.
The center has become an asset to the community and to the state as a tourism draw. Each year more than 80,000 people visit the center from all 50 U.S. states and about 130 countries, Thompson said.
However, the center is more than tourist destination, Thompson added. It also serves as a reminder of how smart, effective policies can make a difference to save an endangered species, he said.
“We tell that conservation story every day here,” he said.
Regulations, including banning the pesticide DDT, helped the species rebound.
That story could be told for other species, too, he added.
“We need to care about all species, not just ones as recognizable and inspiring to humans as the bald eagle,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan attended the event and spoke briefly about the center’s importance and future.
In an interview later, Flanagan said policies that protected the raptor could be seen as an example for other endangered species and habitats.
“It clearly is a success,” she said.
She attended with her daughter Siobhan Ma’iingan, who enjoyed seeing raptors up close in her first visit to the center.
“She’s a big fan of eagles and raptors," Flanagan said. “They’re very important to us culturally.”
Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe Native American tribe, said eagles and raptors are seen as sacred and capable of carrying messages to the creator because of their ability to fly high. For her college graduation, Flanagan received an eagle feather to commemorate the moment. Last year, the eagle center received Flanagan’s vote in favor of $8 million of state money toward a planned $16 million expansion project.
For part of the anniversary celebration, center staff put on display extra pieces of art from the center’s collection. The center also contributed items for temporary display at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. However, those shows don’t scratch the surface of items in the center’s collection.
“That’s .01% of the collection,” Durand said. “There’s everything — propaganda, military, wildlife art — it’s just such an array.”
An expansion of the center would allow more of that to be displayed, she added.
Flanagan wasn’t the only one to bring a child to the center for a first-time visit.
Susan Gansberg, of Menomonie, Wis., brought her sons, Axel and Sawyer, to the center for their first visit.
“They like to see eagles on TV,” she said. “It’s really neat to see them in person.”
“They look awesome,” Sawyer said.