Fredericksburg could one day have a world-class ecological research and education center near the Rappahannock River.

That’s the dream of Buck Cox, an environmental engineer and entrepreneur who is teaming up with Virginia Tech, the University of Mary Washington, Friends of the Rappahannock and others to create what’s he’s calling the Rappahannock River Ecological Park.

His hope is that the city where he grew up could have a “green building” on par with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach. It would offer hands-on classes promoting literacy about the ecosystem, have space for university faculty and scientists to conduct research on problems involving the Rappahannock and its watershed, and be an eco-tourism destination.

“Everything about it would be looking to the future, to show people what can happen,” Cox said.

Getting to that point, however, will take time and money. The first step is to finish raising $300,000 for two projects that Virginia Tech and UMW would conduct this spring. The Wetland Research Initiative had already donated $200,000.

One of the projects would monitor storm water runoff to determine the amount of oil, grease and other contaminants flowing into the Rappahannock and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. The plan is to involve UMW students in collecting the data, said Kathy Harrigan, FOR’s executive director.

This project would also test new materials for improving existing water treatment systems. Findings would be used to determine best practices, which could potentially offset costly remediation requirements for the city and other localities in the Rappahannock watershed.

“It would be boots on the ground, real research,” said Cox.

The second project would help mitigate the corrosive effects of the region’s sulfidic soils. These soils produce sulfuric acid when exposed to air and rainfall. Sulfuric acid is highly corrosive to construction materials such as steel and concrete, and can harm the health of aquatic plants and animals.

“Success from this research project can result in some significant grant money coming from outside of the Fredericksburg area: EPA, Chesapeake Bay-related funding, National Science Foundation and on and on,” Cox said. “So that’s the goal is to initially build that up to be something significant. A cooperative relationship between Virginia Tech and Mary Washington can prosper through this and gives the research facility a permanent place to locate. The educational part would be built into the facility.”

Harrigan said that FOR is excited about being involved because it would be an extension of the environmental education programs it offers. Students and adults would be able to learn about water quality, how to reduce negative impacts on the environment, and the types of decisions that need to be made to accomplish this, she said.

Cox has appealed to the Fredericksburg Economic Development Authority for funding twice, and will be reaching out to other localities, educational institutions, organizations and private individuals as well.

“The EDA is certainly supportive of the idea, so they expressed that to Buck and his team,” said Bill Freehling, Fredericksburg’s Director of Economic Development and Tourism. “They didn’t make any commitments financially, but anticipate that he will come back fairly soon and potentially make a request for some financial support.”

He said that the multi-phase project is attractive, and the city wants to encourage science and research jobs as well as improved water quality.

“It’s a long-term thing,” Freehling said. “We’re fortunate to have passionate people like Buck Cox that care about the city and the river and want to see something happen along it. We’re grateful for his interest.”

Cox, a James Monroe High School graduate, traces his desire to help create a place like his proposed park to the time when he was conducting research at Smith Mountain Lake for his graduate work at Virginia Tech. The only way he could get funding was to include environmental education for 4H students.

“That combination worked out at very well,” he said. “I didn’t think anything about the fact that the kids being interested in the research I was doing, but they very much were.”

Cox said he taught them some basic science about phosphorus, nitrogen and pH levels so the 4Hers could see how these things were getting into the environment and changing it.

“So, over the course of time, what came out of that was concept of developing the park,” Cox said. “I’ve always wanted to put it in Fredericksburg because I’m from here and grew up on the Rappahannock and loved every minute of my time on the river.”

Cox, who lives in Blacksburg, has visited several places to get ideas, including the Brock Environmental Center and Stone Laboratory, Ohio State University’s island campus on Lake Erie. Professional researchers from across the Midwest work at Stone Lab to solve pressing issues facing the Great Lakes, and its programs have provided hands-on science education to thousands of school children and adults.

He said that he’s hoping to use Stone Lab as a model for the Rappahannock River Ecological Park, and will be meeting with people from there along with representatives from Virginia Tech and possibly UMW. He’d also like to involve the business schools at both universities in developing a detailed business plan for the park. The American Canoe Association, which is headquartered in Fredericksburg, is interested as well.

“There is a long series of events that have gotten me to this point,” Cox said. “I’ve almost gotten to the point of believing that it is destined to happen.”

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407 cjett@freelancestar.com