ONWARD, MISS. – Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant and U.S. Senator Thad Cochran joined David Viker of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Mississippi representatives and other partners to break ground for a 5,000 square-foot Theodore Roosevelt Visitor Center. The future visitor center will be located at the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge.
According to an issued press release, the visitor center will recognize President Roosevelt’s conservation legacy and the importance of the Mississippi Delta’s diverse wildlife and natural resources. It will honor President Roosevelt’s famous bear hunt of 1902. President Roosevelt teamed up with freed slave and renowned hunter Holt Collier in pursuit of Louisiana black bear. The president’s refusal to kill a restrained male bear during the hunt was widely publicized at the time and resulted in the creation of a stuffed toy known today as the teddy bear. The future visitor center is located on property near the site of the 1902 hunt.
“Today’s groundbreaking marks the culmination of more than a decade of collaboration and cooperation between the Service and its partners to ensure President Roosevelt’s conservation legacy endures,” said Viker, the Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System chief in the Southeast Region. “The Theodore Roosevelt Visitor Center is becoming a reality because of the unwavering commitment of Senator Cochran, Wildlife Mississippi, and numerous other supporters.”
Soon after the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2004, Senator Cochran began championing a vision for an interpretive center to promote and educate visitors of the rich conservation history and wildlife diversity in the Mississippi Delta. The Senator was instrumental in securing $5.6 million for the planning, design, and construction of the future interpretive and educational visitor center.
“Mississippians embrace balanced efforts to preserve our best natural assets for enjoyment by generations to come,” saidSenator Cochran, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “The Mississippi Delta region is home to many of America’s most important natural and culture assets. I look forward to the completion of the Theodore Roosevelt Visitor Center, and the many educational and economic opportunities it will bring to the Delta.”
The groundbreaking ceremony marks the start of construction. A marginal crop field near Onward will be the location of an interpretive and educational center with lifelike dioramas, interactive exhibits to educate and engage historic interpretations, state-of-the-art audio-visual productions and an educational classroom/auditorium.
For more than a decade, the Service searched for a suitable site in the Mississippi Delta for a visitor center. In 2015, the Service received a donation of six acres from Wildlife Mississippi for the future visitor center. Based in Stoneville, Wildlife Mississippi is a nonprofit conservation organization that works statewide on wildlife habitat conservation, conservation policy and education, and outdoor recreation.
“This visitor center will highlight the most famous hunt on American soil and the world’s most famous toy, the teddy bear,” said James L. Cummins, Wildlife Mississippi’s executive director. “More importantly, it will recognize the foundational system of public land conservation established by President Roosevelt, one that is thriving today in the Mississippi Delta. Wildlife Mississippi is pleased to have donated the land for this center and appreciates Senator Cochran, Congressman Thompson and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their work in making this a reality.”
The Theodore Roosevelt Visitor Center will be a destination on the Blues Highway, the legendary route along the Mississippi River that celebrates the rich history and culture of the Mississippi Delta. The visitor center represents one of the most significant investments in tourism infrastructure across the Delta region south of Greenville, Mississippi, in recent memory. The refuge expects 10,000 visitors annually when it opens in 2018.
“I am delighted the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge is growing with the addition of a visitor center,”Governor Bryant said. “President Roosevelt loved the outdoors. This center will be the perfect way to honor his legacy, highlight his historic hunt in Mississippi and boost tourism in the South Delta. I thank everyone involved for making this project a reality.”
Simon Roosevelt, President Roosevelt’s great-great grandson, and Ann Marie Parker, Holt Collier’s great-niece, participated in today’s groundbreaking as well.
“Theodore Roosevelt certainly was delighted that his visit here in 1902 led to the creation of the first toy bear, beloved by so many children ever since. And certainly he was proud that the publicity surrounding his decision not to shoot the bear during his hunt could serve as a strong and public example of the exercise of what has come to be known as Fair Chase Hunting,” said Simon Roosevelt, great-great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt. “He would be honored that the place of this now famous hunt – and the only National Wildlife Refuge to bear his name – should have both an important role in the recovery of the Louisiana black bear and the continuation of the best hunting tradition. How excellent that we break ground today on the Theodore Roosevelt Visitor Center, a place to educate present and future generations of these good things and highlight the life of his friend Holt Collier.”
“I have been following this effort since the Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge was dedicated over ten years ago,” saidAnne Marie Parker, the great-niece of Holt Collier. “I thank all of those involved for their continued perseverance to make this visitor center a reality. There are a lot of people who have done good things in and for Mississippi. We need to continue to highlight them and their efforts, and this Center will help do that.”
The groundbreaking for this visitor center comes on the heels of the removal of the Louisiana black bear, the animal at the center of the celebrated 1902 hunt, from the endangered species list earlier this year. Like the partnership that will make the visitor center a reality, the Louisiana black bear’s recovery resulted from decades of conservation work by a partnership of federal and state agencies, private landowners, and conservation organizations.
The visitor center is said to be a gateway for promoting and interpreting the conservation and management of more than 230,000 acres of federal and state-owned public lands within the Mississippi Delta. The Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge was established for conservation purposes and is the only national wildlife refuge named for a U.S. president. The Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2004 for the conservation, maintenance, and management of wildlife and was the first national wildlife refuge named for an African American. These public lands are part of a complex of seven national wildlife refuges comprising more than 86,000 acres in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.