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Columbus resident and artist Jenny Floch sketched in the Glen Helen Nature Preserve along Birch Creek on a visit last week with friends. Among the improvements leaders of the newly independent Glen are planning is to make the preserve more accessible to those with mobility challenges. (Photo by Cheryl Durgans)

Glen Helen’s first six months

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When offering an assessment of the first six months since the Glen Helen Association assumed ownership of the Glen Helen Nature Preserve, Executive Director Nick Boutis was reflective.

A friends group of donors, advocates and the volunteers who have supported the Glen for 60 years, the Glen Helen Association has, in the last six months, “stepped into the role of the owner, the operator, the governing board of Glen Helen, all within a global pandemic that forced the shutdown of all of our educational programs,” Boutis said.

Recalling the events of the past year in which the Covid-19 global pandemic almost forced the closure of the nature preserve deeply loved by the community, Boutis laid out the picture from a year ago.

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“We were no longer able to operate our outdoor school programs, no longer able to invite schools to the preserve. It was unsafe to keep buildings open, and all of the sources of operating revenue instantly dried up,” he said. “Antioch College, which we had long been a part of, opted to furlough nearly all of the staff of the Glen, and public access to the preserve was closed.”

And as the challenges continued stacking up so did uncertainty about the Glen’s future. While the closure lasted six months, at the time leaders weren’t sure how long it would go on. The closure was unprecedented, Boutis believes.

“Probably never in the history of the Glen as a parcel of land, even going back to the period before Antioch College took ownership of it, was there ever a time when public access to this land was closed,” he said.

Although the outcome was a positive one, Boutis was blunt about how close the Glen came to closing permanently.

“We were staggeringly close to losing the Glen,” he said.

Then on Sept. 4, 2020, the Glen Helen Association, or GHA, agreed to purchase the preserve from Antioch College for $2.5 million in an agreement that included the rights to all Glen assets, staff and programming.

When the Glen officially reopened to the general public on Sept. 9, it was immediately apparent how much of the natural world the community relied on during the pandemic.

“One of the things that we’ve come to realize was there was a pent-up desire for people to return to the preserve, to get out in nature,” Boutis said. “We came to realize that part of people’s pandemic recovery plan is to spend time in the Glen.”

In a recent interview with the News, Boutis shared an update on the nature preserve. On March 29, Glen leaders gave a public presentation via Zoom, “The First Six Months.”

Looking ahead, the Glen has launched a $3.5 million capital campaign, restarted its educational programs, begun registrations for summer youth Eco-Ccamp and is planning ways to make the preserve more accessible.

Capital campaign launched

Ensuring a secure financial footing so that the Glen will remain stable is a top priority for the preserve, according to Boutis. The Glen thus far, has not been eligible to receive any of the government established pandemic assistance loans, which could alleviate some of the financial burden of the purchase, because of the timing of the change of ownership.

“The Glen Helen Association took all of us on as staff starting in September and did not have the eligibility for it,” Boutis explained. “We’ve kept an eye on the program and if the rules change to position us to be eligible, we will put in a request.”

In response to the economic realities facing the Glen Helen Association, the organization has developed a comprehensive plan to address them through its launch of a $3.5 million capital campaign.

Funds raised as part of the capital campaign are being used to “secure the purchase, preserve the land, and ensure the reopening of the Glen’s programs,” according to the GHA website.

​Despite re-opening in September and weathering the expected slow-down of visitors during the winter, revenue is on an upward trajectory along with new members, according to Boutis. Incoming revenue exceeded projections. The original income projection of $151,473 from July 2020 through June 2021 has been surpassed, with $267,343 coming in the door, according to financials shared with the News. Contribution revenue is up by 67% and visitation revenue is up by 39% over the year prior. Parking revenue, originally budgeted at $34,000, is currently at $48,000 and growing.

In addition, there were 438 new donors to the Glen since June 30, 2020, and 685 new members added, bringing the total membership to 1,980. This represents an increase of 93% from this time last year, the largest jump ever.

“We’re really pleased to see not just new donors to that group but folks who stepped away for a year or two or 10, who came back to renew their support,” Boutis said. “That is how we will succeed as an organization with the support of everybody who cares about the Glen, the work that we do, and knows that their support will make a difference.”

Educational programs resume

Another positive development is the reopening of the summer EcoCamps, though for now the programs will not feature overnight stays.

Instead, the program will run eight weeks of day camps for area youth. The camps are for children ages 5–13, and start up June 7. The demand for the camps was high.

“As soon as we put them online, they were two-thirds of the way full,” Boutis said.

Last year, the Glen had to cancel its EcoCamps entirely.

“It’s an opportunity for kids to get back in nature, for kids to be kids, for kids to spend some time with one another engaged in fun and environmental learnings,” Boutis said of the long running program.

Boutis also discussed the gradual resumption of community programs, with social distancing protocols intact, including the wearing of masks. With all of the Glen’s buildings closed to the public — a situation likely for the foreseeable future — the Glen is doing all outdoor public programs. They have a size limit of 10 people.

“It’s been good to get folks out in the Glen,” Boutis said of the programs, which resumed recently. “I’ve been leading a monthly bird walk, like I have for years, and it’s always a lot of fun to explore the trail.”

Although the Trailside Museum and other Glen buildings remain closed, there is hope that they will not stay that way for too much longer. There are no specific plans for reopening, Boutis said, as they are largely staffed by a combination of staff and volunteers.

“We want to make sure that we’re not putting our staff and volunteers in harm’s way, that we’re not putting the public in harm’s way by reopening. Once we can do so safely, with respectable protocols for keeping people safe and keeping the buildings clean, we want to do that,”  Boutis said.

Improving accessibility

The GHA also recognizes the need to provide greater access to the nature preserve for people who have challenges with mobility.

Boutis discussed ways the Glen’s leadership is considering increasing access. The Glen previously closed a parking lot off of State Route 343 that was once used by people with mobility challenges, and is considering developing a lot there again.

At the time, there were many reasons for the lot closure, Boutis said, including to prevent vehicle vandalism and protect ecologically significant areas.

“It made sense to close that lot, but what we lost when we did that is that folks had no good way to access Glen Helen anymore,” he said.

The Glen now plans to create a parking area that includes a restroom there. According to a rendering, the 156´ x 120´ foot lot would accommodate 58 spaces, with a potential expansion.

“It really opens up the east side of Glen Helen to folks that aren’t able to tackle the heavy stairs that are an obligatory feature on the west side of the Glen.”

It would tie in well to a planned bike path along State Route 343, Boutis said.

“If a bike path is ultimately built between Yellow Springs and Clifton this would be a feature along that bike path, and folks parking here would have near level access to be able to get to the Yellow Springs, to the cascades of Birch Creek, to the Raptor Center and all the way down to the pine forest,” Boutis said.

The accessibility improvements will certainly benefit Columbus resident and artist Jenny Floch. On a hike Monday, April 5, this reporter found Floch sitting comfortably in the nook of a path by the Birch Creek cascades in her wheelchair, enjoying the spring weather and sketching the landscape of burgeoning flora.

“I don’t come here often but I love it,” Floch said.

Floch said she came to the preserve with her partner and some Yellow Springs friends.

“They parked me here, which is what I wanted,” Floch said.

When asked how she got into the Glen with a wheelchair, and if she had any suggestions as to how the Glen could provide greater access to the preserve for people in wheelchairs Floch shared that “all that’s really needed is just a track with a slightly raised edge so that the wheelchair doesn’t go off the path.”

Though maneuvering in the Glen with a wheelchair can be challenging, Floch was adamant that the priority of the Glen is supporting the natural habitat.

“It would be great if I could come here more often on my own, but whatever you do, don’t intrude on the wilderness any more than absolutely necessary,” she said.

In upcoming issues, the News will explore other plans for the Glen, including the Raptor Center, environmental training programs for naturalists, educational programming for school children, and ongoing preservation efforts.

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One Response to “Glen Helen’s first six months”

  1. Susan Rae Oldfield says:

    I fully encourage the return of the parking lot off State route 343. My mother, Rae Dewey, was very disappointed when the parking lot closed. I love the idea of a bike path on State Route 343.
    There is a trail just below the Power Plant that might make a good path for wheel chairs with a lot of volunteer effort. The wildflowers are beautiful there. I wish I was in Yellow Springs to see them. As a Junior Naturalist in 1960, I used to lead kids through the Glen. Loved it.

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