A recent sale agreement has supporters of the Glen Helen Outdoor Education Center in Yellow Springs hopeful the facility can soon continue its work educating children and students about the natural world.
Over the last 60 years, more than a quarter million children growing up in the Miami Valley have spent have spent a week camping on the grounds.
The Glen’s roots grow deep into the history of Yellow Springs and the region. As the nature preserve prepares to begin a new chapter in its history, area residents and out-of-state nature lovers have been reminiscing on the way’s the Glen and its trails have shaped them.
Earlier this month, Antioch College and the Glen Helen Association announced they have reached an agreement in principle to transfer ownership of the Glen to the Glen Helen Association. Once the agreement is finalized, the GHA will assume ownership of the Glen and take on management and operations.
The Glen was gifted to the college by alumnus Hugh Taylor Birch in 1929 as a memorial to his daughter Helen Birch Bartlett. Since that time, the Glen has served as an environmental research site that Antioch College made available to the public for programming and recreational use.
Just two years before its start as the preserve people know today, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s grandfather brought his family to Yellow Springs in 1927 after he was offered a teaching job at Antioch College. According to Fran DeWine, the governor’s grandfather took his family and camped in Glen Helen until they found a place to live. There are photos of Mike’s 2-year-old mother walking around the Glen with a bucket of water as the family camped at their temporary home.
Fran DeWine’s childhood home was across the street from the Outdoor Education Center enterance. Her future husband lived less than half a mile from that same entrance.
“I don’t think we realized what a gem it was because it was just always with us,” Fran DeWine said this week.
Encompassing 1,000 acres and more than 20 miles of hiking trails, the Glen is the regions largest and most visited private nature preserve. It’s larger than many Ohio State Parks, including John Bryan which is next door, according to Glen Helen Ecology Institute executive director, Nick Boutis. Because there are multiple entrance to the Glen, attendance data is not exact, but the best census available says between 100,000 and 125,000 people visit the Glen every year.
Distinctions include a designation from the National Park Service as a National Natural Landmark and designation from the Environmental Protection Agency as a National Environmental Education Area. It holds the title of Oldest Education Forest in Ohio and it boasts the longest environmental education center in the whole Midwest, according to Boutis.
Over 1,000 naturalists have been trained at the Glen.
“So, when somebody from Yellow Springs goes out to the Grand Canyon, or Denali in Alaska, or anywhere around the world, really, there’s a fairly decent chance that there are rangers they are running into who were trained at Glen Helen,” Boutis said.
Though the center offers programs like Eco Camp, Raptor Camp and other niche programs, Boutis said most youth experience the Glen through a week of school camp with their classmates.
“Every week that we were on the trail, teachers would come to us and go through the list of kids that were going to be in our trail groups,” Boutis said. “And every week they would say ‘Oh, you got to watch out for this kid.’ Or, ‘This kid is quiet, you’re going to have a hard time getting them to participate.’”
Glen naturalists and camp leaders would learn to throw out that information because what teachers were describing in the classroom was not true in the natural environment.
“Every week the kids they described as the quiet kids would light up and open up,” Boutis said. “Every week the kids that weren’t getting along with each other would forge friendships and these were behaviors and personal growth characteristics that they would take back to their classroom.”
The impact of camp at Glen Helen as an eighth grader in the 1980s was not realized until later in life for Maria Prether, who grew up Yellow Springs and now lives in Springfield.
“One thing I still use, that I learned at camp is sign language,” Prether said. “We learned the alphabet and I recently used it when my friends’ son was in the hospital on a vent(ilator) and couldn’t speak.”
Visitors and students have also been inspired by the preserve in ways that influenced the rest of their lives and careers.
Stephen Jay Gould, a 1963 Antioch graduate, studied, explored and researched in the Glen. Gould was a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and science writer who is still one of the most influential and widely read popular science authors.
“I think in some ways, more important than the individual results of research (done in the Glen) is the way the Glen has served as a place for educating scientists and educators,” Boutis said.
The Glen’s success and longevity doesn’t seem to be a mystery to local leaders: it is located in a small town, is near colleges and universities, is rich in biodiversity and has a community that’s cherished and worked to protect it for decades.
“In terms of how it effects our economy, it is one of - next to Young’s Jersey Dairy - probably the second biggest reason people come to visit (Yellow Springs),” said Brian Housh, Yellow Springs Village Council president.
Although not finalized, part of the principle agreement grants GHA the ability to reopen the Glen and its trails to the public when it feels it is ready. A finalized agreement is expected to be reached before the end of summer. Antioch will receive approximately $2.5 million over a 10-year period as partial reimbursement for decades of investment in the Glen, according a press release.
A multi-phase capital campaign with the goal of raising $3.5 million is underway to help reopen the Glen, support educational programs and replenish endowments.
“This new step would be a challenge at any point in time,” said GHA President Bethany Gray. “(But) COVID-19 will continue to create unique challenges. The ongoing support of people who love the Glen will be a significant factor in sustaining it and building on its success.”
People are able to donate to the Save the Glen Fund by visiting yscf.org or savetheglen.com.
“I also know we’re just at the start of that ultra marathon,” Boutis said. “This is work that we’re going to be doing amid a global pandemic. But we’ve figured out what we’re going to need to bring to the table, not only to reopen, but to be confident that we’re able to stay open. … The agreement (with Antioch) was basically our permission to start the race.”