By Amy Wenk
For more than 30 years, the Chattahoochee Nature Center has served as an environmental sanctuary where Red-tailed hawks soar in the sky, turtles bask on logs in the sunlight and cat-tails sway in the breeze along the riverbank.
Nestled at the edge of the Chattahoochee River on Willeo Road in Roswell, the nonprofit natural science learning center attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, including local residents like the Armstrong family of Sandy Springs.
For the past six years, Laura Armstrong and her husband David have encouraged their two children Ross, 11, and Blake, 9, to participate in the many programs available to members of the nature center. Their hope is to have their children reconnect with the natural world.
“It’s educational, and it’s fun,” said Laura. “Our children attend Camp Kingfisher in the spring and summer. On the weekends, we do nature hikes.”
Although the nature center has been delighting visitors like this family for years, the center is now expanding its mission, as well as its facilities. The center’s goal is to inspire and encourage conservation by providing a place where the community can learn about the Chattahoochee River — one of the region’s most important non-renewable resources as it provides water for four million people or about 60 percent of the state population.
“It’s an exciting time to be involved with the Chattahoochee Nature Center,” said Executive Director Ann Bergstrom. “Great changes and exciting visions are about to come to fruition. Atlanta and the entire region have a great thing on the horizon.”
During the 1970s, local citizen activists realized the need for action and education relative to environmental issues surrounding the Chattahoochee River watershed, according to Community Relations Director Lynn McIntyre. In 1976, residents in north Fulton, led by John Ripley Forbes with help from Roy Wood, constructed a facility dedicated to environmental education and the development of an ecologically responsible community.
“Through the cooperative efforts of Fulton County, the Georgia Heritage Trust Fund, the Natural Science for Youth Foundation and involved citizens, the Chattahoochee Nature Center opened its doors as a private nonprofit environmental education facility,” McIntyre said.
Since its inception, the nature center has experienced growth in all facets of its operations.
“In north Fulton, we are the number one attraction in terms of attendance,” said McIntyre. “We are one of those institutions that has a great history.”
Today, the urban refuge, which encompasses 30 species of native wildlife and 127 acres of native plants and gardens, grows more than 50 percent of the rare and endangered plant species found in Georgia.
“With 127 acres, it is a special place, because it is like a sanctuary for the animals,” said Tom Howick, Senior Director of Education for the center.
Some of the attractions at the nature center include a wetlands trail that takes participants through five different types of Georgia wetlands including: a mountain bog, a Piedmont flood plain, the Okefenokee Swamp, an herb bog and a longleaf pine/wiregrass community. Other exhibits include a beaver habitat, butterfly garden and bald eagle and raptor aviaries.
The nature center also features a half-mile river boardwalk, which affords up-close exploration of the wetlands along the riverbank, as well as woodland trails that showcase such trees as the American beech and Southern magnolia.
In addition, the nature center has a wildlife clinic onsite to take in injured birds of prey from the community. The center is also currently engaged with Atlanta Botanical Gardens in a program to restore the population of mountain bog turtles to north Georgia.
A New Mission
“The mission of the Chattahoochee Nature Center is to provide unique learning experiences focused on the Chattahoochee River that connect people to the natural world and empower them to positively impact their local environments,” according to McIntyre.
Through the years, the nature center has fulfilled this mission by offering various educational programs for children and youth. For the past decade, about 40,000 school children have visited the nature center each year to experience the wonders of the natural world.
Every day of the week, dozens of kids from metro Atlanta schools gaze in awe at such creatures as turkey vultures and barn owls, which live on the premises in raptor aviaries, while learning about the habits of these native animals.
“We have a very strong education program,” said McIntyre. “It’s very exciting to see the kids get off the bus and come into the nature center and experience nature. They have a wonderful curriculum delivered to them that is completely tied into the Georgia Performance standards, so it is relevant to their learning [at school].”
Children also enjoy Camp Kingfisher, which has been running for 16 years each summer and during school breaks. At Camp Kingfisher, about 800 campers per summer spend their days swimming, canoeing, hiking and exploring science.
“In the after hours, there are programs for scout groups,” added McIntyre. “Also, there are birthday parties that take place on the weekends.”
Although the center has focused on promoting children’s excitement for nature, the center is now hoping to engage adults as well.
“Our goal for the adult community is to provide a local place for adult learning experiences, volunteerism and outdoor family activities that strengthens the environmental stewardship commitment within the community,” McIntyre said.
Several new adult programs are now being offered to accomplish this goal. These activities include nature photography courses, naturalist certification classes and arborist workshops. Guided canoe trips are also a popular draw for families.
A New Center
In addition to expanding its mission, the Chattahoochee Nature Center will soon become a state-wide resource with the completion of its two-year capital campaign. The campaign’s primary goal is to build a brand new, Leadership in Environmental Energy Design (LEED) certified Discovery Center on the grounds of the nature center. The $9 million facility will have two levels with 10,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, a 65-seat theatre and a rooftop garden with native plants for community activities.
“The Discovery Center is going to be unlike anything that has ever been built in Atlanta or for that matter, we believe, in the Southeastern United States,” said Bergstrom. “It is going to be hands-on, minds-on and interactive with lots of wonderful, exciting exhibits that relate to the whole watershed.”
By addressing the environmental challenges of the growing metro region and telling the story of the Chattahoochee watershed from the headwaters to Columbus, the new additions to the nature center will allow it to serve as The Interpretive Center for the Chattahoochee River. At the new Discovery Center, visitors can research critical water issues and pick up information from several environmental organizations.
In addition, visitors will also have comprehensive access to the many recreational opportunities that abound along the 140 miles of parks that comprise the Chattahoochee River Greenway Corridor.
“The Chattahoochee Nature Center will be a portal of information for everything environmental related to the Chattahoochee River and our watershed,” said Bergstrom. “There has been a long-standing need for this centralized place of information, education and exploration.”
The groundbreaking for the new Discovery Center took place on May 20. When complete around June 2009, the new facility will feature exhibits about river wetlands and forests, as well as a 6,500-square foot open-air Discovery Pavilion that will provide citizens with an outdoor space for festivals, student programs and community rentals. Another addition is The Nature Exchange where children can swap stories and natural objects such as fossils and snake sheds with trained naturalists.
To date, the center has raised approximately eight-and-a-half million dollars from pledges and gifts. The center hopes to complete fundraising efforts by Oct. 8 of this year and, in this pursuit, has secured a $500,000 Challenge Grant from The Kresge Foundation, Inc.
“The time to inform the public about the capital campaign and the new direction of the Chattahoochee Nature Center is right now,” said Bergstrom. “We have spent two years working towards our goal. We now need the public to step forward, and help make this dream a reality, so everyone in the region can enjoy and benefit from the new Interpretive Center.”
For more information about the nature center, visit ChattNatureCenter.com. To donate to the capital campaign, contact Lynn McIntyre at 770-992-2055, ext. 224.