If outdoor adventurers want to lose themselves in a forest of towering trees and native plants, they don't have to go far. Fontenelle Forest, one of the area's natural gems, overlooks the Missouri River on the northern edge of Bellevue.
It started with a group of area businesspeople and nature lovers who got together and called themselves the Fontenelle Forest Association in 1913. To start, the group purchased 300 acres of land along the Missouri River.
Now, Fontenelle Forest encompasses about 2,000 acres, has several facilities and welcomes nearly 90,000 visitors a year.
The first roster of its supporters reads like a who's who of early 20th century Omaha-area movers and shakers: Sarah Joslyn, George Morton, Harold Gifford, Charles Dietz, Howard Baldridge, Robert Cowell, Thomas Kimball and Roy Towl, to name a few.
With the exception of caretakers, the land the group purchased was left alone and enjoyed mainly by hikers for about 40 years. Then in the 1960s, an Omaha city forester named Jim Malkowski started to lead educational tours through the forest. They were so popular that a nature center was built in 1966 and Malkowski became its first director.
Since that time, Fontenelle Forest's educational offerings have expanded, as have the Nature Center, its staff and programs. The forest itself is one of the largest natural deciduous forests in Nebraska, and is listed as a National Natural Landmark and a National Historic District by the Interior Department.
In addition to the land in Bellevue, Neale Woods north of Omaha is part of its holdings. Besides the Katherine and Fred Buffett Forest Learning Center (the official name of the Nature Center), Fontenelle Forest facilities include the Gilbert and Martha Hitchcock Wetlands Learning Center and Camp Brewster.
People have memories of the forest, whether staff or visitors, and have been invited to share those memories online at www.fontenelle100.com.
The World-Herald talked to three people who wanted to share the effect the forest had on their lives.
Gary Garabrandt started work at Fontenelle Forest on April 1, 1970. Over more than 40 years, he has done it all: naturalist, self-taught plant ecologist, historian, ranger, chief ranger and director of science and stewardship.
Monday was his last official day before retiring. However, he plans to work part time at the forest after a trip to Wyoming. He's not ready to sever all ties yet.
Garabrandt, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said that in the 1970s, the forest had no land management policy.
“It used to let nature take its course,” he said. “That doesn't really work today.”
Since the mid-1990s he has been involved in three major areas of land management: control or removal of invasive plant species, managing storm and contaminated water runoff, and controlling the deer population. He credits the cooperative efforts of many entities — neighbors, housing developers, the cities of Omaha and Bellevue, Natural Resources Districts, the Corps of Engineers, the federal government — with helping him find success in all three.
In the early years of his employment, he lived at a house in the forest, then moved out to a place in Neale Woods. He met his wife, Marjorie, at Fontenelle Forest when she was doing research for a thesis. The couple live on an acreage near Neale Woods.
Another thing that stands out during his tenure at the forest, he said, is the discovery of the foundations of Fontenelle's Trading Post. Garabrandt and Ed Sterba of the Sarpy County Historical Society worked together to find the site and it was excavated by archaeologists. The site is on the History Trail.
What he thought would be a summer job turned into a career he loved.
Andrew Peters of Council Bluffs, a widely known professional nature painter, said he returns to Fontenelle Forest “to visit old haunts.”
The artist added that his interest in the natural world and the development of his art started in the 1960s when he joined the Nature Club for kids led by Jim Malkowski, then director of Fontenelle Forest.
“It was a fabulous time to go there,” said Peters, who ended up working as a volunteer employee.
“He was a marvelous teacher,” Peters said of Malkowski, who guided young people on hikes. “He knew about everything around us, about the natural world and its creatures. We were riveted. We were lucky to have him.”
Peters, 58, said Malkowski “knew from the start my passion was birds.” He encouraged the young artist, and Peters credits Malkowski's teachings, Karl Bodmer's art (which he saw at Joslyn Art Museum) and Audubon bird prints as the main influences on him.
Malkowski was the first professional he met “who got to tramp in the woods all day. That is what I do now. I love my job.”
Romance blossomed for Anna Thomas Bates at the forest.
In 1997, a biology teacher urged Anna to get a summer job at Fontenelle Forest during a summer break from college.
Not only did Anna develop a love of nature that summer when she was 21, but she also met Brad Bates, a naturalist from Pittsburgh. They fell in love and got married after Anna graduated. The 2001 ceremony was held at Fontenelle Forest, of course.
Now they live near Madison, Wis., but they still come back to Omaha, where Anna grew up, to visit family. They are the parents of two boys.
“We always try to hike at Neale Woods (her favorite place),” she said. Her kids love Mud Pies at the Nature Center.
“It was an amazing education for me,” she said of her camp counselor days. “It was a magical experience.”
In her remembrance for Fontenelle100.com, she says: “It's a beautiful place where children can come to learn about the natural world, touch a snake or see an owl up close. Long hikes in the woods, a first kiss at a camp building ... Fontenelle Forest will forever be connected to my heart and family.”