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Primeval

Fontenelle Forest celebrates 100 years

 

Fontenelle Forest

The object is a Forest Park—available to all—perpetually secure—the property of the State, but forever effectively guarded from the menace of shifting control, ignorance, avarice, and misdirected enthusiasm, by the charter creating it and the association to whose care it has been confided.

-- 1919 Fontenelle Forest Association fundraising appeal

Looking back at these quaintly worded sentiments, Fontenelle Forest Director of Communications Brad A. Watkins said he feels the original 1913 founding group—peppered with historically notable names like Kimball, Gifford and Joslyn—would be pleased to see what is happening at Fontenelle Forest now that it's reached the centennial mark.
 
“I think they would appreciate that what they set out to do happened and is still there,” Watkins said.
 
“What we do now is so close to what they had in the original articles of incorporation,” Executive Director Laura Shiffermiller said. “This organization preceded the state parks by nine years, right around the time the National Park Service was developed...They wanted to preserve the land so that people could use it.”

Taking root 

Fontenelle Forest is not only one of Nebraska’s oldest conservation organizations, today it is also one of the largest private nature centers in the nation. Its two major parcels, the 1,400-acre nature preserve near Bellevue that bears the organization’s name and Neale Woods, 600 additional acres near the Ponca Hills area north of Omaha, encompass undeveloped forest, prairie and wetlands along the Missouri River.
 
“What we do is practice what we call ‘active conservation’. Because we’re surrounded by an urban world, we try to keep our land as close to what it would be naturally,” Shiffermiller said.
 
She points out that 100-year-old photos of the area reveal remarkably little physical change to the landscape. Conservation practices the organization employs include controlled burns, managing invasive species and indigenous wildlife populations, watershed restoration and other activities that help keep an ecosystem in balance.  
 
“Forests that are not maintained are going to look different than Fontenelle Forest. If you go down to Dodge Park or you go up into the hills of Hummel Park, for instance, you’re going to see a different forest,” she said. “It’s subtle, but it’s different.”

Growth phase 

The terra firma, flora and fauna of Fontenelle Forest have maintained equilibrium, but the organization itself has evolved plenty over its first century. Its land holdings have expanded nearly sevenfold from the original 1920 purchase of a few hundred acres. A nature center was established in 1966, and subsequent visitor center facilities have made it possible to offer educational programs for all ages along with exhibits, and activities from field study and camps to live animal demonstrations. Neale Woods began in 1971. In the mid-1990s, a boardwalk trail made access underneath the forest canopy possible for wheelchair users and families with young children in strollers. Acorn Acres, an outdoor “playscape” for children featuring nine activity areas, opened in 2009. And just this summer, Fontenelle Forest acquired Raptor Recovery Nebraska, a statewide organization that cares for injured and orphaned birds of prey.

In full bloom

Today, Fontenelle Forest, a nonprofit, welcomes 90,000 annual visitors and operates on a $2.5 million annual budget sustained through program fees, memberships and donations. It employs 18 full-time staff members and approximately 30 part-time or seasonal workers, and relies on more than 200 volunteers to serve in roles from teacher-naturalists to grounds maintenance assistants. The organization is overseen by a board of directors and served by a guild which organizes the annual Feather Our Nest fundraiser.
 
“I think we’re an important part of the entire arts and culture scene here—the other nonprofits, not just the natural things—but the museums and the zoo and the performing arts,” Watkins said. “We’re unique to the area.”
 
“A lot of what we are doing remains the same as always: dynamic and effective programs in in conservation and education. But now the organization is working to develop its reputation as a leader in environmental stewardship and education; to be recognized nationally and regionally as well as locally. That has really started to happen,” Shiffermiller said.

There will be all kinds of wonderful improvements for people who are visiting here by the time we get through this year and next year. 

Cultivation

The two-year centennial celebration will involve several special initiatives, Shiffermiller said.
 
“We decided back in 2010, when we were preparing, that our centennial wasn’t going to be just a celebration and a party and a look back; it was going to be something that was going to benefit the organization now and into the future,” she said. “We wanted to use our resources to create enduring benefits that will lead us into our second century.”
 
She added, “There will be all kinds of wonderful improvements for people who are visiting here by the time we get through this year and next year. That’s the forward-looking part of it: We’re having fun celebrating, but the things we’re building are really meant to build us for the future.”
 
Physical improvements include renovations to the visitor center such as a revamped children’s area.
 
“We’d like to recreate the forest on a small scale,” Watkins explained. A child-size boardwalk, dipping pond, digital river, miniature treehouse, prairie grass field and Loess Hills climbing area are among the concepts in development. “What we want to do on the inside is prepare you for what you could experience on the outside: what to look for and how you could have a better experience in nature...we want this to be fun and entertaining, but that will help you understand what you are going to see in the real world.”
 
Visitors will see new interior and trail signage, and plans are in the works for an authentic replica of a Nebraska Phase Indian earth lodge. From August 3 to October 31, Fontenelle Forest will be the regional debut site for “Green Revolution,” an eco-friendly, minimal carbon footprint exhibit created by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and distributed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. In late 2014, Neale Woods will open a new nature center.

What we do is practice what we call ‘active conservation.'

New growth 

Less tangible initiatives that are also part of the centennial activities include a restructured board and fundraising, and rebranding with the introduction of a new leaf logo. Visitors past and present are encouraged to contribute to a micro Internet site (Fontenelle100.org) and share their personal stories and reflections on Fontenelle Forest.
 
“Every person that comes here benefits from it, because it has an opportunity to change their lives, teach then to appreciate things and find their place in the world,” Shiffermiller said. “Our community benefits. It’s an asset most communities don’t have and it makes our community a better place to live and work.”
 
“It’s sort of the ultimate green space. It’s not a Central Park-something that’s been manicured and hacked and surrounded and preserved with pesticides. It really is a natural habitat,” Watkins added.

Another 100 rings 

Both Shiffermiller and Watkins say visitors to Fontenelle Forest or Neale Woods should plan to stay awhile, whether they’re first-timers or rediscovering the experience.

“It’s a different pace than what you might be used to and you have to take some time to take on that relaxed attitude. I think you decompress when you come to the forest,” Watkins said.

“The farther you get into the forest, the better the experience it is. Allow yourself some time,” Shiffermiller said. “There is a lot see out there and it’s different every time.”

Even if it takes another hundred years.

“It will be here in 100 years. And it will be bigger,” Shiffermiller said. “Part of our long-term plans is to expand whenever we can. We add contiguous land whenever there’s an opportunity and the resources to do it.” 

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