Two years ago, a beloved nature reserve and science center, a little oasis in the heart of the city, lost its forest.
Well, more precisely, the neighborhood, the poor, students and aspiring local naturalists did. They lost the right to experience nature the way She should be experienced, in the largest tract of priceless, precious, nearly-pristine old-growth Piedmont forest left in the Atlanta area.
Offering free admission to its learning center, grounds, natural-history mini-museum, live-animal exhibits (including functioning bee hives with viewing windows), gardens, inner-city micro-farm, classes, lectures from top scientists and naturalists, a real,working public-access telescope alongside the planetarium, and more, this intellectual and ecologist's paradise has not only fostered many eventual adult scientists and professionals; it's actually saved lives by giving the gift of a real future, of learning, and positive experiential immersion, to otherwise-underprivileged youths and community members.
I've been such an ardent admirer of the Fernbank Science Center and Forest, that I wrote this piece on Al Tate's landmark nature Program in July 2009, Exploring Nature with Your Child at Fernbank Science Center.
Despite all that, a battle has been raging around this place for a few years now, as people on one side fight to starve the venerable, public-access Science Center in favor of the 'flashier' Fernbank Museum of Natural History.
Growing up, my favorite, best days were those when I got to explore the Tenafly Nature Center in my home town of New Jersey. There, in those woods and meadows, as well as in their nature center building, I felt connected to something greater than myself. I learned, both in classes and during my solo meanderings, lessons beyond description. Some had to do with science, some with nature, some about relationships of all kinds, with who I was as a person, with how the world functions - and some defy comprehension.
But I felt changed by them. I was changed by them. They moved me, the way an earthquake moves the land.
Those experiences shaped who I am today, and helped foster one of the most ardent advocates for the natural world you can imagine.
Every town needs a public-access nature center.
Every city requires a bit of wildness, of nature, of fascination, charm, learning and life.
The day I learned the Museum was locking the access gate to the forest, after which students and patrons of the highly-esteemed Science Center would no longer to be able to venture into the forest during their visit, I wrote about it here, in Requiem for Fernbank Science Center Forest.
Why, then, is the Museum, inexplicably, attempting to eviscerate its smaller and, in my opinion finer, competition?
The reasons for this conflict between two otherwise-admirable science centers is perplexing and disturbing. As Damon Young, FSC class attendee and advocate for continuing the widely-lauded nature events and programs at the Science Center, wrote in recent correspondence with Museum spokesperson Susan Neugent,
Your concerns of FSC working in "direct competition" leave me feeling confused by what appears to me to be a scarcity complex.
It confuses - and angers - a lot of other people, too
Fernbank, Inc., (the Museum) claims they are enabling even more educational opportunities to groups and individuals than before, through programs they provide to Museum members, while at the same time actively attempting to distance themselves from the original, and much loved - Fernbank Science Center.
Community members who most benefit from the Science Center, many of whom are poor or otherwise disadvantaged, are being excluded, while the Museum takes full advantage of the ancient forest acres they now control.
If that's not contentious enough, Ms.Neugent (CEO and President of Fernbank Inc., which is the Fernbank Museum of Natural History) openly states their intent to divert school-system tax-payers dollars away from the Science Center:
. . . for many years, we’ve unsuccessfully asked the DeKalb School System to restrict the use of its taxpayer resources for school purposes, rather than using those precious resources to fund programming at the Science Center for the general public in direct competition with the Fernbank Museum’s programming. You will understand that Fernbank, as an organization with absolutely no taxpayer funding, simply cannot afford to continue a relationship that in effect subsidizes a taxpayer-funded organization to compete against us in a manner that creates enormous public confusion detrimental to the Museum. " (Emphasis mine.)
Competition? Why this sense of competition? Each institution is different in character, resources and structure.
Please read the entire email chain at the end of this article. After helping set up the Museum to begin with, it seems grossly unfair that the Science Center is now having the forest denied them, stolen by the very institution it helped bring to life
Perhaps the lavishly-appointed nature of the Museum is in direct conflict with the spirit and intent of the Science Center, which aims to nurture and buoy members of it's own community, while correctly, properly and admirably using Dekalb County School (Education) tax dollars for one of the best educational uses imaginable - Fostering a committed, educated, community-and-planet-oriented population to serve as future custodians of our beleaguered Earth.
And, importantly, offering free access for the community which actually supports it.
Yet with words like elitist and exclusionary being brandished on one side, and intent to jealously restrict forest access on the other, the relationship between the two institutions seems irreconcilable.
It doesn't have to be.
It shouldn't be.
In fact, in my opinion, the entire argument is - well - stupid.
Both sides can, and should, thrive, side by side, simultaneously, and venture, in lockstep, together, into a brighter future for all.
If you agree, please sign the petition - Tell them it's time to Open the gates to the forest again. And leave your comment. I did.. This is what I said:
I was heartbroken and outraged when the Fernbank Science Center forest was first closed. I stood outside the gate reading the signs after my last forest walk, feeling impotent and wronged on behalf of all the children and aspiring naturalists in Greater Atlanta.
The whole purpose of allowing the community to respectfully walk the only old-growth forest fragment left in Atlanta, to feel the power, the beauty and majesty of the forest, and the reverence for nature it instills, has been undermined by your arbitrary decision to lock those gates.
Please do the right thing and allow Fernbank Science Center visitors access to the forest again, and help future generations learn to love, respect and understand the natural world through their first-hand, heart-felt experiences in this most magical - and precious - place."
*Copy of unedited, unabridged email chain (used with permission) below. Email addresses removed to protect privacy.
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From: Damon Young
Date: April 19, 2012 8:35:50 AM EDT
To: Susan Neugent
Subject: Re: School groups and classes barred from Fernbank Forest ?
Thank you for being direct about your intentions and motivations on the issue. I hope you will continue to have a dialog with me. I can now better understand and accept that the renewal of the lease to FSC is not on your agenda, yet its the exclusionary aspect of the forest which concerns me. I am not the only one. In good faith I will continue to try and understand your position better; but I also ask of you if you can understand the other side of this, and how you are being perceived by the public in taking this position?
I appreciate that you demonstrate goodwill by giving away free tickets to your museum, but I'm talking about in the larger picture of cooperation and partnership within the community here.
Your concerns of FSC working in "direct competition" leave me feeling confused by what appears to me to be a scarcity complex. I really do get that you must have funds to survive, but I have to wonder how much this competition you speak of really adds up in dollars. I understand your desire to take over stewardship of the forest, and desire to build your own forest programming. I ask you: does whether FSC allows some groups into the forest that happen to meet there rather than at your location going to affect your bottom line that much? "Detrimental" seems a strong word and I would disagree also about "enormous pubic confusion." My children aged 3 and 6 have no trouble distinguishing between the organizations.
Certainly the specialized content of the individual museums brings a richness to the city which among those I know is cherished. Why could not both sides go into the forest?
I wish to appeal to your sense of community. Our class: Mr. Al's Exploring Nature With Your Child class, for instance, has a range of families who meet twice a month to do just as the name suggests. As you may imagine we are pretty progressive folks - home schoolers, teachers, and parents who want to instill a love of learning in our kids. Most of us are members of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History as well as supporters of Fernbank SC. Our class meets in a building by the gate of the forest. Now we are struggling to explain to our children that the class can not continue to include a trip into the forest in which we have customarily "explored nature" together. Is the fact that we are not paying your institution an entry fee really so effecting your bottom line? Are you certain that the bad blood you are creating is not doing more damage than the apparent dollars which you seem to think you are missing out on? What I fail to understand is how you are so eager to expand your programming in the forest, but seem to have grave concerns over a group having a walk in the forest from the FSC side.
Lastly, regarding the history of cooperation between your two organizations. My understanding is that when Fernbank Natural History Museum was starting, the naturalists of FSC devoted considerable amounts of material and time in helping to build your institution. This was obviously done not for money, but out of a sense of fellowship and love of teaching the young to love and appreciate the natural world.
Am I reading this correctly? Are you divorcing yourself of fellowship with FSC because you feel threatened by how they handle their own financial arrangements?
Thank you again for you time in helping us to understand this situation.
On Apr 13, 2012, at 2:52 PM, Susan Neugent wrote:
Dear Mr. Young,
Again, thank you for taking the time to connect on the Fernbank Forest, for being a member of the Museum and for your patience with me in finding time to respond more extensively to your questions. Your e-mail contains a few misunderstandings and, on behalf of Fernbank, Inc. (“Fernbank”), I’d like to provide a factual basis for your understanding of the issues.
First, Fernbank has owned the Forest since 1938, and has, since construction of the Fernbank Museum, anticipated the natural maturation of the lease, which will allow Fernbank to expand our programming in the Forest and more clearly establish the linkage between the Forest and Museum. Because of those plans, we never discussed a renewal or significant extension of the lease.
The Museum has begun work on a Fernbank Campus Master Plan which will, at its core, accentuate environmental preservation. One of the first products of the Master Plan is a Forest Stewardship Plan to provide solid scientific direction for the removal of harmful invasive plant species and treatment of devastating insect infestations, both of which are currently prevalent in the Forest. The Master Plan will also identify capital improvements and programmatic expansion to serve even more families and students.
As you probably know, the lease expired in February but, to reduce any disruption to school groups and classes, we have offered to extend the lease through the end of the school year. We have certainly not disallowed any school groups, scout groups and public classes from entering the Forest. In fact, during the course of their extended lease to the Forest, the Science Center is encouraged to continue to provide programming and classes to the students of DeKalb County Schools. Finally, as part of the transition to Museum stewardship and the master planning process, we hope to improve the experience of all these and other groups in their future enjoyment of the Forest.
Next, regarding the relationship between Fernbank and the Science Center, Fernbank was eager to continue that relationship–using your phrase “on a cooperative basis”–with each organization helping the other. In that regard, for many years, we’ve unsuccessfully asked the DeKalb School System to restrict the use of its taxpayer resources for school purposes, rather than using those precious resources to fund programming at the Science Center for the general public in direct competition with the Fernbank Museum’s programming. You will understand that Fernbank, as an organization with absolutely no taxpayer funding, simply cannot afford to continue a relationship that in effect subsidizes a taxpayer-funded organization to compete against us in a manner that creates enormous public confusion detrimental to the Museum.
Finally, your concerns of elitism and exclusion are certainly not terms I would expect to see associated with Fernbank Museum. Just this past school year, nearly 14,000 students were admitted to the Museum free of charge at a cost to us of nearly $80,000. We also provide an after-school science enrichment program through a partnership with the Atlanta Public Schools and outdoor environmental classes called Urban Watch for Title One eligible students. We do everything we can to make the Museum accessible and will continue to do that not only because it is our mission but because we strongly desire to do it.
While this may be more detail than you wanted to know about this topic, because of your very thoughtful letter, I wanted to provide a broader foundation for understanding the full picture as well as the long-term plans that the Museum has about its mission and campus. I hope you will let me know if you have other questions about this.
From: Damon Young
Sent: Tuesday, April 03, 2012 11:14 PM
To: Susan Neugent
Subject: Re: School groups and classes barred from Fernbank Forest ?
Dear Mrs. Neugent,
Thanks again for your prompt reply to my initial email. I realize you may be very busy with many spring break visitors to the museum this week. I'm hoping you can get back to me as I do have a lot of people who are waiting to find out the answers.
Yours very truly,
On Mar 28, 2012, at 5:22 PM, Damon Young wrote:
Dear Ms. Neugent,
Thank you so much for your letter. I really appreciate your addressing my concern and your quick reply. I am understanding from your letter that the boy scout trooops and school classes which are visiting Fernbank Forest through FSC will continue to do so, along with the FSC birdwatching class on Sat AM, the volunteer invasive species removal team, and the Exploring Nature with Your Children class on Thursdays? It is very important for me that this programming continue; I believe it is so beneficial to children.
Thanks so much for helping me understand.
On Mar 25, 2012, at 1:06 PM, Susan Neugent wrote:
Dear Mr. Young,
I deeply appreciate your email and take seriously the issue you raise. While I am not in a position today to respond to your email with the depth it deserves at this moment, I will certainly do so soon. Meanwhile, with respect to the suggestion that school groups, scout groups and public classes are disallowed from entering the Forest, nothing could be further from the truth!
I look forward to responding in more depth and to meeting you in person. If you have this misunderstanding, no doubt others do as well. You could be very helpful in communicating a clear understanding of this to others!
Many thanks for taking the time to connect,
From: Damon Young
Sent: Sunday, March 25, 2012 12:12 PM
To: Susan Neugent
Cc: Susan Neugent
Subject: School groups and classes barred from Fernbank Forest ?
Dear Mrs. Neugent,
I understand that Fernbank, Inc. has refused to renew the fifty year lease granted to Fernbank Science Center, who up until now have conducted a variety of active educational programs in the Fernbank Forest. Though members of the general public may apparently still enter the forest, those disallowed from entering include school groups on field trips, cub scout groups, and public classes. The free or reduced price classes in the forest serve a need in the community that will now go unmet.
The primary funds of Fernbank, Inc. are based on community goodwill such as trusts and donations. Refusal to renew the lease is an action that does not engender goodwill or positive public perception. It sends a message of elitism and exclusion that is inappropriate for an institution in the service of education to the public.
These two organizations, Fernbank Museum of Natural History and Fernbank Science Center, have been cooperative partners in the past, and can do much good to better our community as partners in the future. As a Fernbank member and also an advocate of the Fernbank Science Center's programming, I take this situation very seriously.
As a member of Fernbank Natural History Museum and also the community at large I strongly request that you revisit this decision and bring an important avenue of nature education back to the Greater Atlanta Community.
*** Note: Here are the links to my previous articles concerning the Fernbank Science Center (not in order of publication date):