Soon the DeKalb County School District will no longer be responsible for the care and maintenance of Fernbank Forest, a 65-acre tract of mature mixed hardwood forest that serves as a nature preserve.
On June 30, a 45-year lease of the preserve to DCSD will expire, and the care and maintenance of the forest will fall to owner Fernbank Inc.
“We had been negotiating back and forth,” school district spokesman Walter Woods said. “The lease is as old as I am. About 6,000 children a year visit the forest and people in the community use it as well.”
Woods said since 2009 the district had been negotiating with Fernbank Inc. to come up with another long-term lease, but the owners decided to let the district’s current lease expire and not give it the option of renewing.
“It costs us $250,000 to maintain the forest each year but that wasn’t a budgetary concern for us,” Woods said. He said now the district is working with the county to find something that will provide students the same hands-on, outdoor experience that the forest did. “There are a number of options with parks and stuff around the county.”
Woods said DCSD will still maintain the Fernbank Science Center, which sits across from Fernbank Elementary School.
Brandi Berry, a spokeswoman for the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, said the decision to let the lease run out coincides with the history museum’s 20th anniversary.
“It wasn’t really so much a decision not to,” Berry said. “It was just that the lease ran its course. It didn’t catch anybody by surprise; it was always kind of known.”
Berry said there are some invasive species and ecological issues the forest is facing and the first goal for the history museum in regards to the forest was to take care of those issues.
“We’re not taking access away from anyone,” Berry said. “We’re working on an entire master plan of the campus, including the forest, and developing some programs to make it even better than it is now.”
Although Berry said a lot of improvements need to be completed within the forest, she said it wasn’t fair to say that DCSD let it fall into disrepair during the 45 years it held the lease with Fernbank Inc.
Berry said the museum is working with nationally recognized ecologists and landscape technicians to make sure everything is in place for the next phase of the forest. She said the museum will soon announce its new plans for the forest.
“We’re excited that people are taking an interest in what’s happening to the forest. I think it needs more attention and there are a lot of improvements that need to be made,” Berry said. “It’s not fair to ask someone who is leasing your property to make those improvements.”