When Isaac Wolfe Bernheim purchased the original 13,300 acres and created the Isaac W. Bernheim Foundation in 1929, nobody could have imagined the impact this would have on our community 90 years later. While the landscape that Mr. Bernheim purchased has changed greatly since these early days, the purpose and aim of the Isaac W. Bernheim Foundation has not.
Ninety years ago the land we now call Bernheim Forest seemed a long way from Louisville. Train or gravel roads were the only routes one could take to Clermont. Without Interstate-65 the area was much quieter, and few would have expected to see the rapid growth that would occur over the next century. Even though the forest was depleted from years of logging and farming, Isaac Bernheim saw potential in the worn out knobs land and purchased the original 13,300 acres for $106,569.00. Mr. Bernheim’s gift of the land and the creation of the Isaac W. Bernheim Foundation in 1929 remains perhaps the single largest gift to conservation and environmental education in the history of Kentucky.
Bernheim staff began to restore the worn out farmland. Trees were planted and fences were removed. Agricultural land in Clermont, now known as the Bernheim Arboretum, was selected by the Olmstead Brothers for an extensive landscape design to become a park. Lakes, collections of trees and shrubs, and walking paths were added and the feeling of an arboretum began to take shape. After 20 years of careful preparation the arboretum opened, and in 1951 we began hosting visits from the public .This was our first step toward connecting people with nature and continues today with our nature-based education programs.
Many animals common today were completely absent from the early forest. Forest Managers started reintroduction of the deer and turkey while patrolling the property on horseback to prevent poaching, arson, and illegal timber harvesting. These early efforts were successful and now much of the regions wildlife can trace their genealogy back to these releases. The forest also rebounded, with scrubby and eroded hillsides regenerating into native stands of hardwoods that now cover the rugged knobs. With the rebound of forests many other plants and animals began to return after years of decline. Ninety years later Bernheim Forest continues to care for 16,137 acres of the most biodiverse natural land in central Kentucky.
As the landscape has evolved we remain true to the guiding principles set forth by Isaac Bernheim: managing the forest for native plants and wildlife; maintaining an arboretum open to the public with a diverse array of tree and shrubs; using nature to inspire and interpret art; and working diligently to educate our visitors of the importance of nature and a healthy environment. We maintain the traditions set forth by the visionary Isaac Bernheim to provide for and to be accessible to all people, free from politics, religion, and discrimination, and to act as a place to restore the bond between people and nature. Furthering the intent of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, we work with purposeful thought toward the future generating a constant flow of big ideas that result in real world actions.
During the next ninety years at Bernheim we will continue to incorporate positive change to adapt and improve in the 21st century, continue to make the world a better place for our communities, and remain grounded in the simple yet powerful mission to connect people with nature.