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Fernbank fight 

Museum, forest fans disagree over access to wooded area

NO FENCES: Decatur resident Noemi Vega started a petition to demand entry into the lush and diverse woods behind Fernbank Science Center.

Joeff Davis

NO FENCES: Decatur resident Noemi Vega started a petition to demand entry into the lush and diverse woods behind Fernbank Science Center.

Fernbank Forest in Druid Hills may be one of metro Atlanta's least-known natural treasures. Some of the oldest trees in the city and state grow in the 65 acres of old-growth Piedmont forest and, according to one official, it boasts a wildlife diversity rivaling Puerto Rico's.

One reason it's not more well-known might be because public access to the forest has been restricted for nearly two years. Last month, unhappy forest fans started circulating a petition in protest. CL has learned that the closure is partly due to a massive conservation plan that will eventually reopen the forest in 2016. But it also involves tension between the two similarly named science institutions located on opposite edges of the forest.

Fernbank Science Center, which is run by DeKalb County schools, was founded in the 1960s to help the nonprofit Fernbank Inc. manage the wooded area. FSC fenced the forest, built a gate in its backyard, and for decades offered free, self-guided access. Then there's the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, founded in 1992 and operated directly by Fernbank Inc. In 2012, the nonprofit ended FSC's forest lease and padlocked the gate. It called the shutdown "temporary" but gave no timeline or explanation beyond "safety" and "conservation work."

Since then, the only forest access has been limited to irregular, little-publicized tours run by the museum through its gates.

"We basically got fed up with it being closed for two years," says Noemi Vega, a Decatur mom who last month started a petition at OpenFernbankForest.com that has more than 300 signatures.

Susan Neugent, the president and CEO of both the museum and Fernbank Inc., told CL in an interview and forest tour that it will provide much more open access in the future. In fact, the museum plans to offer far more self-guided public access than FSC ever did — but only through its own gates and for an admission fee to cover an estimated in $250,000 annual maintenance costs.

"We will not reopen the forest from that [FSC] spot," Neugent said. "It's our legacy. ... We always contemplated reconnecting the forest to the museum."

The museum is partly worried about competition. It relies on ticket admission for 90 percent of its income, but is often confused with the free, taxpayer-subsidized FSC.

The institutional tension has fueled the museum's secrecy about its in-depth conservation plan, which it let CL view but not publish because it's proprietary and officials have concerns that the public might not understand some technical elements. It's also left FSC fans fearing the worst.

Dr. Larry Wilson, who co-managed the forest at FSC for nearly 30 years, says he left the forest in decent shape and fears a spectacular museum-style makeover. He also noted forest preserver Emily Harrison's original "vision of a schoolhouse in the forest" where the public could learn about nature. "Are you trying to protect the forest, or do you see it as a commodity you want to make money off of?" Wilson says.

Museum officials admit they're building anticipation for an unveiling event. But their conservation effort looks serious and well-informed. And there's real work to be done on invasive species choking much of the forest. On the tour, CL saw there are hardly any ferns left on the stream bank that gave the forest its name.

Museum officials say FSC never provided a forest management plan, so they felt the need to intervene. They remain open to future collaborations and are considering one option that would keep the FSC gate as well — with an entry fee — if funding could be found to staff it. Wilson says he's eager to help: "I would love for this to be a cooperative thing."

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