TUCKED among the mountains of southern Oregon, where the Siskiyous connect the Cascades with the Coast Range, is a new showcase for one of the country's most diverse natural landscapes.
The Pacific Northwest Museum of Natural History, which opened in July in Ashland, Ore., highlights the rich biological and geological diversity of this region.
More than a musty bones-and-rocks display, it actively engages visitors in the science behind the scenery. And through a series of interactive computers and videos it gives people a hands-on chance to see the consequences of their own decisions on natural-resource management.
``What I'm looking for is that `Aha!' experience,'' says museum director Ron Lamb, the retired professor of biology who nursed the idea of the museum for nearly a decade.
For 38 years in the classroom and in the field, Dr. Lamb boiled down his goal for ``good science'' to a conceptual framework of six principles of nature: change through time, diversity as strength, adaptation, interdependence of species, energy flow, and nutrient cycles. That conceptual framework runs through all these exhibits, Lamb says.
The visitor begins by passing through a lava tube to a series of constructed Pacific Northwest ecosystems: estuaries and saltwater marshes, rocky intertidal zones, freshwater marshes, fir and pine forests, alpine areas, grasslands, high deserts.
Every visitor is issued a personal ``passport'' to be stamped at the various activity centers. Here, scenarios are laid out for the management of water resources, forests, and rangeland. Participants choose some combination of use and preservation, then learn how animals, people, communities, and businesses might be affected by their choice.
``We are trying to point out that there are positives and negatives in everything we do,'' Lamb says. ``There are choices to be made, and they have to be made on the basis of good science.''
The museum, whose graceful curvilinear roof spine matches the nearby hills, shares space donated by Southern Oregon State College with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's forensics lab. Five other federal agencies are participating in the museum, which is funded by government and private sources.
Museum activities include field trips and classes for everyone from preschoolers to high school teachers. Outside are daily exhibits and talks.
``Holy smoke!'' exclaims one youngster as an 11-foot live python is brought out to illustrate a standing-room-only program on reptiles. That's the ``Aha!'' experience Ron Lamb is looking for.