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  • #MyMGM: Natural Treasure

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    Established in 1935, The Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) is the state’s oldest and largest non-profit citizen conservation organization and promotes conservation education, responsible stewardship of wildlife and natural resources, and Alabama’s hunting and angling heritage. Using the appeal of the outdoors and the Alabama Nature Center, the group is engaging the next generation of conservationists.
     
    You won’t find someone more passionate about his job than Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) Executive Director Tim Gothard. A lifelong outdoor enthusiast with a Forest Management degree from Auburn University, Gothard spends his days ensuring future generations get to enjoy the same things he did as a child, with AWF’s Alabama Nature Center as a primary tool.
     
    “The experiences these kids are having — walking through creeks, hiking through the outdoors, really connecting with nature — these are the things I did as a kid. It’s truly a vision come to life for me and everyone associated with AWF,” he said.
     
    That vision, to develop a world-class out-door education facility, was formed around a boardroom table in the late 1990s. Organization leaders decided that conservation education should be elevated to priority status. “In every one of our board meetings at the time, we would circle back to the same conversation — that young people are becoming increasingly disconnected from the land,” said Gothard. “We finally decided it was time to stop talking about it and do something.”
     
    Through the tireless work of AWF staff, supporters and donors, AWF moved its headquarters from downtown Montgomery to Lanark in Millbrook, Alabama, in March of 2003. Isabell Hill and family, who’d heard about and believed in the group’s mission, donated Lanark (which was their home) and its 358 acres. The land gave AWF the ability to be immersed in nature and through a $10 million fundraising campaign and two phases of construction, the idea sparked in that late-1990s boardroom became a reality.
     
    In 2007, AWF opened Phase I of the Alabama Nature Center, including 5 miles of boardwalks and trails and Lanark Pavilion. Phase II followed in 2015 with completion of the NaturePlex, the 23,000-square-foot, permanent Welcome and Education facility for the Alabama Nature Center. The two facilities, along with AWF’s headquarters and Historic Lanark, make up the four distinct destinations inside Lanark. Once inside, visitors gladly trade in screen time for play time to explore and learn about Alabama’s great outdoors.  
     
    Experiencing Nature With AWF
    Since 2007, more than a quarter of a mil-lion people have visited Lanark. Gothard estimates that the number of visitors is accelerating so quickly, they’ll hit 500,000 in just five years. “There are a lot of people who are passionate about the things that we are — the outdoors and the state’s natural resources. They place value in knowing that the next generation is going to be attuned to those things, knowing how to enjoy them while managing and protecting them,” said Gothard.
     
    More than 60 percent of all visitors to Lanark are youth and school groups, many of them through Lanark Field Days, a full-day field trip for Pre-K-12 students. There is also an Early Explorers Program for younger children, homeschool and after-school pro-grams, camps, guided hikes, animal encounters and a variety of one-day activities for families. In addition, the NaturePlex includes a 120-seat theater, a hands-on Discovery Hall, classrooms, a community room for meeting use and rentals and a gift shop. The 5-mile self-guided trail system is open for public use.
     
    AWF is currently constructing a new gopher tortoise educational unit outside the Nature-Plex, near the recently built honey bee apiary. Gothard expects most future additions to be similar in scope — a function of growth for the facility, rather than a multi-million-dollar project. When the NaturePlex was built, it was constructed so that it would be easy to accommodate small expansions as needed.
     
    “It’s amazing to step back and look around,” said Gothard. “This vision has not only come to life, it is truly a treasure for this area and the entire state of Alabama.”
     
    FRESH AIR FUN
    The weekends are packed with family-friendly activities year-round, including the annual Critter Crawl 5K and Yeti Dash on February 23, the ANC Scavenger Hunt on March 30, archery on May 11, and the Hydrangea Festival on June 1.
     
    AWF’s Historic Home
    The Lanark property is in Millbrook, just off exit 179 on I-65. The original Lanark home began as a cabin built by Peyton Bibb in 1827. According to AWF, the house passed to the Hall family, who continued to enlarge and expand the original building. In the late 1920s, Wiley Hill’s grandfather purchased the house and property.  Wiley and Isabel Hill moved to Lanark as newlyweds in 1948, building their own home on the property and cultivating a beautiful 30-acre garden. Wiley Hill passed away in 1995, and Isabel continued to care for their home and gardens until her death in 2001 when she left both houses, the gardens and the surrounding 300+ acres for the Alabama Wildlife Federation to create the Alabama Nature Center.
     
    Do & See
    • ANC is Open Monday – Saturday 9am – 5pm 
    • Admission is $5 per person/day; children 3 and under are free, and there is a $20 maximum rate for families. Season passes are available.
    • Explore the Discovery Hall, watch nature-themed movies and hike 5 miles of boardwalks and trails. Plus, there are special programs and fishing every Saturday. There are also day camps in the summer. You can rent facilities for birthday parties and other occasions, and an Early Explorers Pre-K Program for younger kids is held one Thursday a month. 
    • Learn more at alabamawildlife.org
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