Bernheim at 90: Becoming a destination for wildlife

By volunteer

Can you believe we are already halfway through the year?   By now you may have heard that 2019 is the 90th anniversary of the ‘living legacy’ that is Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. Wow.  90 years.  It’s an amazing milestone and it speaks volumes to the dedication and commitment of the Board of Trustees, Bernheim staff, members, and donors throughout the years.

Isaac and Amanda Bernheim’s vision of creating a place where people might “…recreate their lives in the enjoyment of nature…”is alive and well.  All of the Bernheim stories that people have been sharing this year serve to show just how much the forest has been a positive influence in their lives and those around them.  I wonder, however, if you have considered what it has meant to wildlife?

By June of 1929, when Isaac Bernheim purchased the original 13,300 acres, the land had been    cleared of trees.  They had been cut down and burned to fuel first, the salt industry and then, the iron industry.  What had once been lush forest and rich grasslands had been destroyed and left nearly worthless. Photos from that time period show the stark reality. It would take nearly twenty years of planting and landscaping before the grounds would be deemed ready for the public. There are few records of the wildlife found at that time; however, the few records there are, as well as anecdotal evidence, and personal experience, all suggest it took much longer for the forest to welcome back wildlife.

If you observe, for any length of time, areas that have been cleared for farms, or factories, or even housing developments, you might note the lack of wildlife. You may see a few birds but there is little left of interest to more than a handful of species. All living creatures share the same basic needs: a source of food to provide nourishment so they may grow and flourish, shelter from the weather and the harsh extremes of our environment, and finally, protection from predators so they might create future generations.

As the trees grow and the forest matures an amazing transformation begins to take place. Little by little new pockets of shelter are formed. Birds visit the growing trees. Perhaps they drop some seeds. New food sources start to emerge. More forms of wildlife start to move in. Maybe a couple of squirrels are next to move in. Animals, such as birds and squirrels help spread seeds and nuts thereby helping the forest itself to grow and regenerate. It has been said that squirrels plant far more trees than humans can even think about doing. This new growth, in turn, leads to yet more diversity of wildlife moving in and taking residence.

On what was once a tired and broken piece of land, the arboretum now hosts over 8,000 varieties of trees. More than 30 species of mammal have been identified in the forest.  There are more than 50 types of reptiles and amphibians to be found. Over 200 kinds of bird may be seen through the year. At last count the forest even has 15 different species of firefly. From snails to beetles or bats, new species are still being added to the lists.

It took nearly twenty years to make the original 13,000 acres ready for human visitors. It took somewhat longer to be ready for the wildlife that inhabits the more than 16,000 acres Bernheim has become. Whether the smallest of insects, or the largest of mammal, growth is a necessary part of life. I like to think that when Isaac Bernheim gifted us the ‘Living Legacy’ that is Bernheim Forest, he also gifted us a ‘growing legacy’.  It is my hope future generations feel that way as well.

Jim Scout, Volunteer Naturalist 


In 2019, Bernheim celebrates 90 years of connecting people with nature. At over 25 square miles, Bernheim is the largest privately held forest dedicated to conservation and education in the region. Our arboretum is home to plant collections of over 8,000 varieties, public art, and educational programming for thousands of students.  Our pristine forest hosts hikers and outdoor adventures alongside research and conservation projects which will serve to protect the environment for future generations.

As a 100% member and donor supported organization, we could not fulfill this important mission without you. We hope you’ll continue to support our efforts throughout the next 90 years.  Join or donate by clicking here.


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