May 2017
Outdoor Life

The Nearness of Nature

The NaturePlex at Alabama Nature Center provides easy access to a spectacular outdoor experience.

 

There are 300 acres and 5 miles of boardwalks and trails at the Alabama Nature Center.

It’s called the NaturePlex and is the crown jewel of the Alabama Wildlife Federation – a $6 million, 23,000-square-foot facility out in the boondocks.

What makes it extra special is the fact that it’s only a few miles from upscale shopping centers, restaurants, movies and even professional baseball games.

How that happened is testimony to skilled planners who were able to design it in such a way as to benefit urban and rural residents throughout the year.

The NaturePlex is the official welcome facility of the Alabama Nature Center, fulfilling the final structural element of the foundation’s vision for a world-class, outdoor education center in the state.

Those who tour the site for the first time are amazed at how close it is to Cobbs Ford Road in Prattville, just a stone’s throw from easily accessible Interstate 65 and a few miles north of Montgomery.

The Alabama Nature Center has it all, from a comfortable theater that shows environmental films to nature-based displays, classrooms, a stuffed bear accidentally killed by a driver and even the sounds of chirping birds to greet visitors as they near the front door of the facility.

The NaturePlex is a popular destination for school field trips.

 
   

When people hear robins, cardinals and finches serenading them as they arrive, the first thing they usually do is look around; only to be told later that it’s just part of a sophisticated computer program.

"It was planned as part of our mission to have a significant introduction to the Nature Center," said AWF Executive Director Tim Gothard, who has helped create the unique facility during his 19 years at the helm.

City dwellers unfamiliar with birds and their calls soon learn those chirps are part of canopy sounds generated by a motion-based audio system that sets the stage for what is to come later at the facility.

Gothard credits Dr. David Thrasher with coming up with the sound-system idea. Thrasher is a former president of AWF and enjoys getting into the woods whenever he has an opportunity.

"A lot of people think what they are hearing is real and that birds are everywhere, and that’s part of what we’re trying to do to prepare them for what country living is all about," Gothard said.

 

Tim Gothard, executive director of Alabama Wildlife Federation, has a great view of The Nature Center’s $6 million headquarters facility in rural Elmore County.

State Sen. Clyde Chambliss’ district encompasses the AWF facility and he is a regular visitor to the Nature Center, describing it as "an amazing asset in the middle of the Millbrook area."

Instead of driving long distances to savor the outdoors, it’s basically a hop, skip and jump for visitors to reach the I-65 connection to Cobbs Ford Road that leads directly to the Nature Center.

Chambliss is one of many area residents who can’t say enough laudatory things about Gothard, who leads a relatively small group of dedicated employees who don’t mind long hours if necessary.

"Tim’s leadership is part of the tremendous job he’s done since becoming executive director of Alabama Wildlife Federation," Chambliss said.

Gothard’s long tenure as director of the organization has enabled him and his staff to build a wide following across the state.

"We’re trying to show people what country living is all about," Gothard said. "It’s all part of preparing people to connect with the outdoors."

He’s particularly proud of the progress made in the decade since the Nature Center opened in 2007. The first phase was constructing five miles of boardwalks, trails and an outdoor pavilion.

The Nature Center was opened in 2015 and has become the permanent welcome and education center for the site.

"We represent what a group of people can do when they are on the same page," Gothard said. "Our capital campaign helped to raise the funds we needed at the start and we are continuing to seek financial support to help keep this going."

Tim Wood, general manager of Central Alabama Farmers Co-op in Selma and a member of the AWF board of directors, calls him a "great administrator who is knowledgeable of just about everything associated with his job."

"He loves the outdoors, but is just as much at home handling administrative duties," Wood said. "Ask him a question and he knows the answers."

Kids learning about the eastern indigo snake, one of ANC’s resident, educational animals.

 

Gothard learned the value of a dollar at a young age when, at the age of 8, he earned a penny a plate that covered electrical wall sockets. His electrician dad paid him that huge sum more as a lesson in responsibility as anything else.

He might make a grand sum of 50 cents a day, but that amount skyrocketed at the age of 11 when he learned how to actually put the plugs into the wall. He eventually assisted his father in wiring houses.

At Auburn University, he majored in forestry. It would be handy as he gained experience in the nuts and bolts of administrative management.

"I took a lot of course work at Auburn on wildlife and hardwood forests, and it certainly paid off for me in the long run," he said. "I guess all that time I spent in the woods as a kid was a big help as far as my future was concerned."

Gothard’s fundraising abilities caught Wood’s eyes from the start because most of the $2.3 million annual budget to keep AWF going comes from private funding from corporate supporters and donations.

"What Tim has been able to do is help create a first-class facility, one that has been successful in just about everything he does," Wood said. "I can’t thank him enough for how he’s been able to raise private dollars to make it all happen."

Although Gothard grew up in Millbrook, much of his summer months and weekends were spent at the Baker Hill community in Barbour County where endless woods constituted his playground.

While other boys his age were practicing their football spirals, curve balls or playing video games, he was in the woods and streams, looking for minnows and crawfish.

"I couldn’t wait to wake up in the morning so I could head into the woods," he said. "I’ve never been a couch potato. I’m a hunter and a gatherer."

He was also adept at digging his own worms for bait. On a good day, he used to come up with 40-50 worms, meaning the fishing was bound to be good.

As Gothard talks about the huge operation he manages, he is prone to sprinkle "passion" throughout his comments because that word has been a driving force that keeps him going.

"I am passionate when it comes to getting people into the woods to experience the great outdoors," he said. "Much of what we do involves field trips for schoolchildren and thousands have been here over the years."

Gothard enjoys reading emails and letters from children who have been to the popular wildlife site and can’t wait to do it again as soon as possible.

"They’ve written us to say it was the best field trip they were ever on," he said. "Some have even said it’s a better experience than going to the zoo. What we have is a different kind of zoo and do our best to acquaint young people with what we have out here."

Gothard manages a facility that includes 16 fulltime and about 20 part timers as well as seasonal employees. It takes that many because of the facility’s continued growth through the years.

Among those employees are three biologists who are kept busy throughout the year. One of their many duties is assisting private landowners across the state, because most of the land in Alabama is privately owned.

Before he took over as director at AWF, Gothard was forest management chief of the state Department of Forestry.

"I wasn’t looking for another job when this opportunity came along, but it was just too good to turn down," said Gothard, who is as happy to be where he is as those who hired him.

For details about the NaturePlex, the Alabama Nature Center and the Alabama Wildlife Federation call 334-285-4550.


Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.