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Discover more than just trees at Forest Discovery Center

July 02, 2008
Gas prices got you down? Don't know of any way to beat the heat? Think affordable family fun is a thing of the past? Well, if you're in need of some welcome distractions, look no further than your own backyard. Residents of Crawford, Floyd and Harrison counties will be pleased to learn that there are plenty of interesting places to visit within the tri-county area that don't require a lot of money for admission or traveling. In a new weekly column, the Clarion News will feature places that you can take your family for a good time on the cheap. This week we'll be featuring the Forest Discovery Center.

Nestled in the secluded countryside of Starlight, one would expect to see farmland and wineries, staples of the Southern Indiana quiet life. But amidst the rolling hills and lazy creeping roads, a booming industry can be found.

Family-owned and operated, Koetter Woodworking has been providing the region with quality wood products for nearly a half-century, but it's only been in the last decade that the company has begun to educate the public about proper forest management.

The Koetter factory floor is seen here with criss-crossing catwalks where visitors can oversee the production plant. (Photos by Nick Simpson)
The Forest Discovery Center, owned by and connected to Koetter, is a treat for visitors young and old who wish to mix in a little education with a good time. School groups and groups of 20 or more receive guided tours of the center that include an indoor forest, an enormous activity center, a full-size movie theater and a tour of the manufacturing area of Koetter. Due to time constraints, there are only two or three guided tours a day that last around an hour and a half to two hours.

"Thousands of school kids come each year," and not just from the local counties of Floyd, Harrison, Crawford and Clark, director Cris Kruer said, noting the Discovery Center has been known to cater to schools as far away as Indianapolis and Oldham County, Ky.

Above is a segment of the 1,000-square-foot mural that surrounds the second-floor activity center.
"We just finished a curriculum for field trips for state standards and national standards," Kruer continued. This makes it easier for teachers to know what their students will learn and fulfill educational requirements by visiting the Discovery Center.

Upon entering the doors of the center, visitors are immediately treated to a comfortable, air-conditioned climate and an eye-catching Cherry molding encompassing the reception area, an example of the fine craftsmanship at Koetter. While paying the modest admission fee, guests will notice the large and colorful display of the center's mission statement: "The Mission of The Forest Discovery Center is to educate, demonstrate and help create an understanding of and a lifelong appreciation for our forests and their resources … for generations to come."

Two raccoons are eternally investigating this creek in the Center's indoor forest.
The first stop on the tour is the indoor forest. In this first area, visitors on a self-guided tour can peruse the many displays and enjoy the life-like flora and fauna. Students on tours learn that proper forest management involves only harvesting mature trees. When the tree is felled, it opens a hole in the canopy and allows more trees to grow in the place of the one cut down. In a well-managed forest, the replanting of trees is not needed; nature takes care of that.

"Koetter does plant a lot of trees, though (thousands annually)," Kruer explained, "but not necessarily in the place where we cut them down."

Kids also learn how to identify the tree species by its leaves. Kruer confided that Koetter loggers must know how to identify trees by this method as well as by the tree's bark.

The tour then leads through the gift shop and the concession area as well as a lunch room where students can eat their sack lunches. Moving on to the second floor, visitors enter the activity center complete with a puzzle area, computer area, large walk-through tree and mini theater.

The mini theater offers four short films that show the making of a Louisville Slugger bat, a pencil and paper, as well as a heart-warming story about a tree who dreams of becoming a house.

Inside the walk-through tree, kids can sign their names pledging to be good keepers of the forest.

Surrounding the entire room is a large mural depicting the four seasons done completely with marquetry. Marquetry is basically puzzle woodworking using all-natural wood with no dyes or stains. To achieve different shades or colors, different species of wood are used. The enormous mural took 250 days to complete over the course of two years. It was all done by the center's own in-house marquetry master, Dan Diekhoff. Diekhoff's workshop is connected to the activity center where visitors can come and watch him and his recent apprentice, Sheila Missi, work.

The workshop receives unique colors and grains of wood from loggers, factory workers, friends and neighbors. Some of the more exotic species are special ordered. One such species, known as the Purpleheart, produces boards of a deep purple.

Illustration by Alisha Sonner
Missi explained that the Tulip Poplar has the greatest range in color and grain.

"The only true color we haven't found yet is blue," she said.

At the opposite end of the activity center is a full-size movie theater where guests are treated to a short 10-minute film starring Koetter Woodworking founder Tom Koetter and Oaky Acorn, a cute, animated acorn. The film teaches kids about wood products and wood by-products that people use every day without realizing it, and portrays a world without wood as an empty place.

Attached to the Activity Center is the Woods conference room. This beautifully decorated and chandilier-laden room boasts a panoramic view of the Starlight countryside as well as access to a catering prep dinners. With a capacity of 250 people, the Woods has hosted weddings, corporate meetings, proms, birthday parties, faculty retreats and various other events.

Following the Activity Center, the tour moves on to the manufacturing plant. On catwalks high above the plant floor, visitors follow blue arrows that lead them around the factory and past speaker stations that offer information about what's going on below that section of the catwalk.

Between the walkways, a conveyor belt transports wood chips to semi-trailers waiting outside. The Chips are used for fuel for the dry kilns and also sold as animal bedding, mulch and material for particle board.

"Very little of the tree is wasted," Kruer said.

On the manufacturing tour, visitors can see the whole process, from a piece lumber to a finished piece of molding. The factory itself is surprisingly clean for the work being done. Kruer explained that the dust collection for the factory is very good and that workers are encouraged to keep their areas clean. The species one will most often see being worked on is Tulip Poplar. It's used the most because it is a faster growing tree that takes only 60 years to reach maturity. Other species, such as Oak, can take up to 120 years to reach maturity.

Near the end of the manufacturing part of the tour, visitors are told that Koetter products are used in some famous homes, most notably the White House. Other celebrities with Koetter wood in their homes include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jeff Burton, Dolly Parton, Madonna and Clint Eastwood.

After the manufacturing tour, guests are then led back to the Activity Center where they are given leave to do whatever they like. The gift shop offers some interesting souvenirs as well as clothing.

All in all, the Forest Discovery Center is a great place close to home to take children or others for some good, educational fun, as well as a way to escape the heat while getting a bird's-eye view of some beautiful Southern Indiana countryside.

Cost: Adults - $6, Senior Citizens - $5, Children 6 to 12 - $4,

Children under 5 - FREE

Hours: Monday - Friday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For more information: Call 812-923-1590 or visit www.forestcenter.com
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