Matthew S. Gunby  /  AP file
An osprey lands in a nesting area on the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, near Cambridge, Md. A $1.5 million observatory is now open in a remodeled visitor’s center, where visitors can watch live cameras that record life in osprey and eagle nests.
updated 5/11/2007 1:15:53 PM ET 2007-05-11T17:15:53

There’s no golf course or hotel coming to the quiet marshes around this refuge, a spot prized by birdwatchers for its bustling waterfowl and bald eagle populations. But that doesn’t mean there are no changes underway at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

In April, the state purchased more than 700 acres near the Little Blackwater River to prevent a large development near the preserve. Officials at the Eastern Shore nature sanctuary say news accounts of the land deal have brought more visitors.

At the same time, the refuge is getting a facelift, and an eco-tourism boom is making it easier than ever to rent bikes and boats in the area. A $1.5 million observatory is now open in a remodeled visitor’s center, an airy room where visitors can peer out at the marsh or watch live cameras that record life in osprey and eagle nests.

The refuge is also due for new bike paths and an outdoor classroom for school groups. In addition, the state is considering creating a museum in the area about the life of Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery nearby.

Showing off the Blackwater visitor’s center, Maggie Briggs, the refuge’s visitor services manager, said new exhibits and the observation room have drawn more visitors.

The developer’s proposal to build thousands of homes, a golf course and hotel near Blackwater also sparked an outcry that “brought a great deal of attention, and it brought a lot of people out here. A lot of people might not have known how important this refuge was,” Briggs said.

“We saw it in the news,” said Larry Damico of New Castle, Del., who recently visited the park with his wife Liz. “We said, ‘This is a good day. We’ll drive down to this park.’ We brought our bikes.”

At an observation station near the river, Robert and Margo Titus stood with binoculars to check out the birds flapping nearby.

“It’s impressive. There’s a lot of action here, a lot of life, particularly eagles and ospreys,” said Robert Titus, of Lyme, N.H.

Briggs, who has worked at the refuge almost 20 years, said that only recently could visitors rent bikes or canoes or kayaks in the area.

“People want to get out and see nature. And that’s something they can do here,” she said.

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Nature-lovers may soon share space with history buffs if state plans to build a Tubman museum go forward. Tubman is usually associated with

Auburn, N.Y., where she eventually settled and lived for many years, but she was born here, in Maryland’s Dorchester County. She fled north, escaping slavery in 1849, but returned to the South repeatedly to bring slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

The museum would be built in a 1913 farmhouse acquired by the state the same day it purchased the property surrounding Blackwater. The  farmhouse has no ties to Tubman but historians hope it becomes the biggest Tubman marker in Maryland. A small Tubman museum now exists in Cambridge, Md.

“What’s valuable in Dorchester and Caroline counties are the landscapes. They’re very similar to what was there when she was there,” said Barbara Mackey, who helped research Tubman for the National Park Service, where she works in the Boston office.

The recent attention on the refuge, combined with new attractions and future plans, mean good changes are due for Blackwater, Briggs said.

“We’ve always been a mecca for birders. Now we’re getting all kinds of people out,” she said.

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