Museum urges patience as restoration keeps Fernbank Forest closed

A Carolina wren trilled in the treetops. Sunlight splashed across a leafy canopy of oak, hickory and poplar. A breeze in the shadows moved like something alive.

Susan Neugent took it all in — the sound, the light, that insistent little breath of June air — and promised that all of Atlanta one day will have the chance once again to tour Fernbank Forest.

Just not yet.

Neugent, president and chief executive officer of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, is overseeing an effort to eradicate scores of invasive plants in the woods. The work, said Neugent, will create “a sharp, stunning example of what is one of the finest presentations of our nation’s natural heritage.”

For two years, the forest, a 65-acre site in the heart of Druid Hills, has been closed except for occasional tours. During its closure, museum officials say, workers and volunteers have bent over to remove English ivy, privet, Nandina and other flora threatening to choke out the ferns that gave the forest its name.

People accustomed to visiting the forest want the museum to reopen the tract, an old-growth forest. Some also chafe at the museum’s plans to charge admission, another first in seven decades of public visits.

For 48 years, the Fernbank Science Center, on Heaton Park Drive near Decatur, operated the forest until its lease expired in 2012. The science center, often confused with the museum (and vice versa) on Clifton Road, belongs to the DeKalb County School District. The center, underwritten by tax money, didn’t charge to visit the forest.

Museum officials say they don’t have that luxury, and must charge for access to maintain the woodland.

Earlier this year, DeKalb resident Noemi Vega created an online petition, asking the museum to open the forest’s two gates. By mid-June, more than 450 had signed.

“For a long time, the forest was open to everyone,” said Vega, who recently picketed outside the forest’s Clifton Road gate with a sign proclaiming, “Open Fernbank Forest.” Her family also started a website and Facebook page urging the museum to open the forest.

“Now it’s closed,” she said. “We’re just crushed.”

Officials say the tract may be closed two years longer. The museum wants to move carefully in removing unwanted growth.

“We only have one shot at this,” said Aneli Nugteren, the museum’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “If we mess this up, it’s forever.”

Fernbank Forest is an environmental treasure, a southern Piedmont woodland largely untouched by human activity. Parts of the forest have not felt the bite of a backhoe, ever. Soil tests in those areas indicate that the dirt has never been moved.

The tract’s beauty impressed Zadok Harrison, clerk of the Georgia Supreme Court. Following the Civil War, he bought the site, 4 miles from the big city of Atlanta. A daughter, Emily, regularly rambled its heights and ravines, picking flowers and studying other plants. In a letter credited to her, the 17-year-old wrote to a friend:

“The woods are all around, the great trees growing so tall and close together that in some places the sun can hardly find its way through to flicker on the carpet of brown leaves and pine needles that strew the ground. … So many and such a variety of flowers I think I have never seen in any other woods.”

Admiring greenery flanking a stream, the girl coined a name for her wooded home: Fernbank.

Zadok Harrison died in 1935. His daughter, worried that the tract would become another community of homes, recruited others to save the forest. They formed an association, Fernbank Inc., which bought the forest for $35,000. Atlantans regularly visited it.

The woodland became an open classroom in 1964 when the 48-year lease took effect. An estimated 6,000 school children visited annually, following naturalists along paths. Thousands more took self-guided tours, peering under plants and standing on the banks of a small pond where dragonflies flitted over lilies.

The visits dropped off when the museum took over in 2012. It hired Steven Handel, a Rutgers University plant ecologist and a specialist in restoring urban woodlands, to assess the forest’s health. Handel, assisted by other plant ecologists, identified more than 40 invasive species — many, he said, which had come from nearby yards and were spread by birds. He urged the museum to step up eradication efforts, which the science center had been performing for decades.

The removal program has to be constant, Handel said. “Invasives will always be with us,” he said, “like death and taxes.”

Al Tate, who conducted forest tours at the science center until his retirement two years ago, believes the museum could host visits while simultaneously removing unwanted plants. He has a PowerPoint demonstration urging the forest’s opening. The first image: a closeup of locks on a forest gate.

“There’s no reason why we couldn’t be educating kids in the forest today,” said Tate, who spoke Tuesday night to the community action group Good Growth DeKalb. “It seems a real tragedy to me that the forest has been closed two years. “

The forest ought to reopen, said Rebecca Anderson, who attended the meeting. Until 2012, she regularly visited the site with her daughter, Barbara. “My child has been begging me to go back to the forest for two years,” she said.

Nugteren, who also attended the meeting, nodded.

“We want you guys in there,” she said. “We just need a little more time.”