By Michael Jacobs
A 30-acre forest preserve in Sandy Springs is losing its president and prime benefactor as the organization looks to broaden its financial support and expand its services.
Charles Roberts has resigned as president of the board of the John Ripley Forbes Big Trees Forest Preserve effective Feb. 1, although the real estate developer said he’s willing to extend his three years of service by a month or so during the search for a successor.
Roberts has paid all of the bills for the preserve, totaling about $90,000 a year, Executive Director Patricia Thernell said. “We are left without any funding for next year.”
What Thernell called a funding crisis comes just after the city spent $416,000 to acquire another forest preserve, the 22-acre Lost Corner, with the help of the state, the Georgia Land Conservation Program, the Trust for Public Land and the Sandy Springs Conservancy.
“We were actually pioneers because Sandy Springs really had nothing in preservation efforts,” said Margaret Forbes, a Big Trees board member, Sandy Springs resident and widow of founder John Forbes. “We were the first to present the city with this beautiful forest right in the city.”
Big Trees’ future as a preserve is secure, she said, but the programming, staffing and plans for new facilities are in jeopardy without an infusion of new money. “It’s a shame that people would be denied so many of the pluses we can give them with more funding.”
John Forbes worked with the Southeast Land Preservation Trust, Fulton County, the state and others to cobble together Big Trees in 1990 four miles north of I-285 along Roswell Road. The state owns 10 acres, and the county gave Sandy Springs the other 20 in 2006. Fulton spent $50,000 a year on the preserve when it owned the land, but neither the state nor the city contributes now.
“We really want the city to embrace Big Trees and be a part of its success and do its part in supporting a wonderful amenity,” said Roberts, who added that the city is blessed to have two pristine urban forests.
He became president at the request of Forbes three months before the founder died in 2006. “John said, ‘You need to do this because you’ve cut down a lot of trees as a developer,’ ” said Roberts, a Sandy Springs resident who has led Roberts Properties since 1970. “This was my chance to take care of some trees and take care of something very important to our region.”
He said the idea was always that he would provide a transition between the founder and long-term management, so the situation is not a crisis. Under his leadership, Big Trees changed its bylaws, improved its accounting systems, completed its nonprofit documents and finished a survey of its needs.
“One strong leader is what you need in a major transition and passing of a founder. It’s a short-term situation,” Roberts said. “When everything is in great shape and where it wants to be, you need a bigger board and more community involvement.”
He said Big Trees has never done much fundraising; now it must, even in a recession. “I wish it was a better economy, but that’s not why we’re doing it. It’s just time.”
Among the improvements planned are better signage on Roswell Road, bathrooms on the site and a new learning center.
“Sometimes change presents an opportunity for others to get involved,” Roberts said. “A new opportunity comes along for people to be a part and contribute.”
One plan is to invite each City Council member to pick a constituent to serve on the board, thus connecting the preserve to all six city districts. Roberts said those six members would be part of a board of 10 to 12 people, including Roberts himself.
Forbes said the current board has talked to the city about funding and is trying to connect with outdoors organizations.
But Thernell said the immediate need is to find a president and source of operational funding, which includes her salary.
“Of course it’s difficult because everybody seems to be handicapped in making donations,” Forbes said. “We hope that will soon resolve itself.”
Roberts expressed confidence Big Trees will emerge stronger. “We’re really getting done what John wanted and what I know we want.”
Anyone interested in working with Big Trees can contact Thernell at 770-673-0111 or BigTreesForest@bellsouth.net.