By his own admission, Gordon Stephenson's passion for Waikato's wetlands did not stem from an instant attraction.
"I always looked to the high areas and the wild coast; these were my treasures. Wetlands? Nah."
But through friends and fellow conservationists, Mr Stephenson learnt about the importance of "our shy places".
Wetlands support a diversity of native fish, birds, invertebrates and plants, and filter water.
In 1999 Mr Stephenson and David Lawrie helped found the National Wetland Trust with the vision of creating a national wetland centre.
Standing on the parched grassy reserve area near Lake Serpentine yesterday, the pair reflected on the trust's vision.
"It's been 14 years in the making but they say creating a good cake takes time. Our vision is taking shape with the full flavour of what we dreamed about," Mr Stephenson said.
The men were joined by about 150 people at Lake Serpentine to mark World Wetlands Day and to launch work on the National Wetland Centre.
A wetland centre is planned at the site, with the first phase involving the construction of a 1.4-kilometre predator-proof fence.
The fence will surround about nine hectares of peat lake, wetland and a stand of kahikatea.
The Waikato River Authority has given the trust a $600,000 grant to build the fence, with construction planned to start in the coming months.
Design development plans for the wetland centre are expected to be finished later this year.
Lake Serpentine is made up of three interconnected lakes and is managed by the Conservation Department.
The nearby kahikatea swamp forest and former pasture land are recreation reserve areas and managed by Waipa District Council.
DOC Waikato conservator Greg Martin said the planned national wetland centre would help promote the idea that wetlands were important "in a conservation sense".
"The department has a vision of making New Zealand the best living space on earth . . . and sites like these are key to that. We have the prospect of connecting and communicating with the community."
The wetlands centre will have interactive exhibits and give visitors an unimpeded view of Serpentine's South Lake.
Nine-year-old twins and Kiwi Conservation Club members Ella and Shaun Baucke said visiting wetlands gave them a chance to see and learn about native species.
"It's a cool place to visit and there's heaps of birds and insects to see," Shaun said.
- Waikato Times