Glen Helen Welcomes New Director
by Fred Kraus
A Northern Flicker, silhouetted in the afternoon sun near the top of a massive oak tree, pecks enthusiastically, while down below, water from the Cascade rushes into a holding pool before continuing into Yellow Springs Creek. Heading up the slope, a multitude of tracks, layered set upon set, disappear as a side trail gets obscured by lush vegetation.
This is Glen Helen, the quietly spectacular 1,000-acre back yard of Robert S. Whyte, Executive Director of the Glen Helen Ecology Institute and Antioch College faculty member since July 2000. Whyte oversees the Glen Helen Nature Preserve, the Outdoor Education Center and Raptor Center.
Whyte is the second executive director of the Glen Helen Ecology Institute, which was established in 1995 as “a bio-regional center that seeks to address the ecological, economic, political, social and spiritual challenges to our culture as we strive to build a sustainable society,” according to its mission statement. Whyte follows Rick Flood, who resigned in 1999. Don Hollister was appointed interim director and assisted Whyte as he assessed the challenges ahead. Don now holds the half-time position of Volunteer Coordinator of Glen Helen.
“My favorite part of the job?” wonders Bob, 42, a Long Island, NY, native. “Right there,” he answers, gesturing toward the window of the Glen Helen building overlooking the Glen. “I can see those woods. I have to remind myself to get out there more often. It’s a wonderful back yard to work in – and to play in,” he said. “It’s easy to get caught up – and sometimes overwhelmed – in the day-to-day operations so that it’s a struggle to stop and go for a walk. But if you don’t, if you don’t stay connected, you can’t do the job.”
Bob has a number of projects in mind that will help members of the Antioch community – and beyond – realize what a special phenomenon the Glen is.
“There are a number of needs. But if there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s not to act too quickly. The best thing that I can do – and what I have been doing – is to take a step back. I want to gain a real sense of what the Glen is all about and quietly assess what our needs are,” said Bob, who holds a Ph.D. in Botany and a master’s in Environmental Science from Miami University, and a B.S. in Fisheries and Wildlife from Michigan State.
“It’s great to see so many people love this place. There are so many people who care,” said Bob. “You know, the Glen has been here for a long time. It’s not going anywhere. We need to see what the Glen says and move from there.”
Bob’s past work includes being Aquatic Biologist for Lake County, Illinois, Director of Environmental Programs for the Associated Colleges of the South in Atlanta, assistant visiting professor at Miami University, an education specialist with the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District, and a consultant to the Environmental Services Division of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.
He and his wife, Sallie – a Cincinnati native and fashion designer – have a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. He said they were really pleased to have an opportunity to return to Ohio. More importantly, the job allows him to use his background in natural resource management while also allowing him the opportunity to work with students.
Bob, who had a stint in the Peace Corp in West Africa, cited three areas of focus for the Glen:
• The physical structure, including the buildings
• A secure financial base
• A land management plan
“We need to look at the Glen as an entire system – the North Glen, the South Glen, the wetlands. We also need to look outside the Glen to the watershed. They are all related,” Bob said. “We, our society, have altered our environment so much. Just look around. We don’t have many resources like this.”
Another thing to consider is the interrelationship of the Glen to the College. It is owned by Antioch University and operated by the Glen Helen Ecology Institute of Antioch College. The policy-setting body of the Glen is the Glen Helen Board of Overseers. He also works very closely with the Glen Helen Association and serves that organization – which now celebrates its 41st year – as a Trustee.
Regarding the physical plant, one concern is the condition of the 10 buildings on the Outdoor Education Center campus, which was built in 1955. The buildings were constructed of lumber recycled from a recreation pavilion in the Glen and from World War II surplus barracks used by the College to house veteran students in the postwar era. The Trailside Museum is also under scrutiny. This structure was built in 1952 from the ruins of kilns left over from the limestone industry, which first flourished in the Glen in the 1840s. The offices of the Sergius Vernet Memorial, also known as the Glen Helen Building (and Nature Shop and Visitors Center), also is in the queue for updating. One of the first matters of business was to replace the original 1973 carpeting with carpet tiles. “They are mold-resistant and anti-fungal,” said Bob. “I don’t think the original carpeting has been dry for decades.” The new carpet, Solenium, is a 100 percent recycled product. The old carpeting will be recycled and not placed in a landfill.
Bob already has enlisted the help of students through the College course that he teaches, Ecological Design. “The focus of the class will be reducing your ecological footprint,” said Bob. “I wanted it to be a hands-on class. The students will have a semester-long research project. I am counting on them to do a lot of preliminary work on the Outdoor Education Center and the Glen. I hope to be able to plug in their research directly to our needs,” Bob said.
“At the same time, it’s a great opportunity for the students. This type of work gives the students ownership and gets them more involved with the Glen. Really, I don’t think they would enjoy the class if it were any other way.”
Getting the funds together to instill some of the improvements will be one of the challenges facing Bob. “We do get financial support from the College, but we are pretty much autonomous – we are pretty much left alone to operate how we should. Given this freedom, the onus is on us to balance the budget and move forward. Since I am an Antioch employee, I’ll fund-raise and coordinate through them.” Individual donors and the Glen Helen Association also play key fund-raising roles.
“I’d like to see the Glen used across all disciplines. I’d like to see both faculty and students use it as a resource for classes, for research and for volunteering. Regardless of major, I’d like to draw everybody in. The possibilities are really tremendous.”
“Strengthening the academic side of Glen Helen is something I’d like to expand,” added Bob. “For example, I’d like to see us offering courses from the Institute, with perhaps a regional faculty teaching summer courses – a complete summer program with workshops.” Bob said he would like to expand past the grade school programs to further include local or regional folk who want to learn about the program. “Think what could be done with even a bird-watching program,” he said. He also mentioned establishing a research consortium through the Glen.
Bob said the developments being planned for the G. Stanley Hall building on campus near the golf course should enhance and complement the Glen Helen improvements. “I’m a member of GreenCil and a member of the Antioch community. The key lies in coordinating our efforts,” he said. “The Glen is something that really binds Antioch and Yellow Springs and the region.”
Bob was quick to point out that Glen Helen is a private nature preserve and does not receive state, county, village or federal funding for its operations. “We choose to keep the Glen open to the public,” said Bob. “We don’t like to turn people away. The only request we make is that parties of 10 visitors or more register in advance. We also ask them for a $1 donation. We like to know what’s going on out there,” he said.
Glen Helen’s spectacular valleys were given their shape by the meltwaters from the last glaciation retreat. Much of the land within Glen Helen has been cultivated, timbered or grazed. But many areas have gone undisturbed for years and the natural processes can be observed. A 250-acre parcel within the Glen has been designated a “National Natural Landmark” by the National Park Service. The State and National Scenic Little Miami River flows through the southern end of Glen Helen.
Nearly all of the land of the Glen was given to the College by alumnus Hugh Taylor Birch in 1929 as a living memorial to his daughter, Helen Birch Bartlett. In 1937 Birch presented a statue of Horace Mann – the great educator and Antioch founder – to Antioch College on the 100th anniversary of public education in the United States. The statue stands within the Glen on land that Mann owned while president of Antioch.
Nearly one-third of Glen Helen is natural forest; another third is formerly farmland reverting to forest; and the balance is managed meadow and prairie. Distinctive geologic features include the travertine hills, cascades and the Yellow Spring. Other notable sights include the Grotto and Old Dam, the large rock column known as Pompey’s Pillar, and the Pine Forest, which was planted in the 1920s as an experiment by the State Division of Forestry.
More than 100,000 visitors enjoy the 20 miles of trails in the Glen Helen Nature Preserve each year. “I have heard it said that ‘people are loving the Glen to death.’ While I can appreciate that statement, I have to say that I disagree – no, we are not loving the Glen to death. What we can do – and must do – is to monitor the level of use and to maintain the Glen to preserve its future. And in order to do that we need a financial base,” Bob said. “We need to educate people to reconnect them to the environment. That’s our primary mission.”
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