Bernheim at 90: Mac McClure, A Future of Preservation

By volunteer

In Bernheim’s 90 year history there have been many people whose giant contributions have made this arboretum and research forest possible.  Without doubt, Isaac Bernheim was foremost in that group but he was far from alone.  Most of the other names are not familiar to Bernheim visitors but their vision and efforts have been key in making this forest sanctuary available to us all. It is appropriate that we look back at some of those contributions. This is the eighth in a series of posts to highlight those efforts. (click here to read part 1click here to read part 2click here to read part 3click here to read part 4click here to read part 5, click here to read part 6, click here to read part 7)

Mac McClure pictured at the Quiet Garden in 1994.

Charles King ‘Mac’ McClure III started his career at Bernheim as an assistant to Executive Director Robert Paul, Isaac Bernheim’s long-time friend and aide. Mac’s association with Bernheim Forest added another connection with Kentucky’s bourbon legacy. Isaac Bernheim, along with his brother Bernard were of course behind the famed I.W. Harper brand.  Mac McClure also came from a fabled bourbon family –  his maternal grandfather, Julian P. ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle, created of many premium bourbons including Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve.

Mac came to Bernheim as a young man with multiple interests.  He had started his college career as a premed student and later changed his major to biology while retaining his interest in medicine – and adding economics as an additional interest.  His masters degree from Duke University was in Natural Resources and Ecology.

His initial duties under Mr. Paul were on an important issue, though not one typically focused on by Bernheim’s visitors: tax law. In its early decades, the Bernheim Foundation had operated with only the money provided by its founder.  Changes to federal tax law in the 1970s put the Foundation’s tax exempt status in jeopardy. One of those changes was a requirement that a portion of the operating budget include money raised from the public. Up to that point there had never been a sustained effort to raise funds from the public. Mac was tasked with developing and promoting the Friends of Bernheim program. Operating somewhat like today’s membership and Giving Circles programs, Mac was able to raise enough money from supporters to keep Bernheim on the right side of the tax law.

His bigger contributions to Bernheim were yet to come. Following the retirement of Frank Bunce in 1973, Mac was named Forest Manager and directed operations in the forest while coordinating closely with Robert Paul.  A few years after the passing of Mr. Paul, Mac McClure became the new Executive Director in 1987. His tenure at Bernheim was an eventful one filled with great challenges and great progress. Some of those challenges were very similar to those faced today. He resisted multiple efforts by utilities and others to place pipelines, power lines and roads through Bernheim property. He dealt with the aftermath of a 1979 pipeline oil spill that caused extensive damage to the Wilson Creek watershed. He also resisted zoning changes that would turn lands neighboring Bernheim into commercial developments that could adversely effect the forest.

Mac brought an end an unsuccessful arrangement that Bernheim had with the State of Kentucky – a four thousand-acre section of the forest known as the South Block had been leased in 1959 to the state for a fifty year period and became Knobs State Forest. The state never made a significant effort to manage that land or control access to it. The result was that the land was subject to poaching and illegal cutting of trees. The single road through it was repeatedly torn up by four- wheel drive vehicles to the extent that it was impossible for fire crews or other emergency vehicles to enter when necessary.  Mac led the successful  effort to break the lease in 1980 and return the land to Bernheim control. This allowed animals, including our golden eagles, to have access to a large expanse of protected land needed for them to thrive. (The current Knobs State Forest near Lebanon Junction is on a different tract of land that was never Bernheim property). Mac also managed the acquisition of additional acreage that further added to size of the natural area under Bernheim’s protection.

Mac McClure changed the focus at the forest from short term goals to a much longer horizons, 50,100,150 years in the future and took actions towards making that future the best possible.  He sought to adjust the balance between efforts made to enhance public use and those directed towards environmental protection. In 1979, an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency into a nearby toxic dump site in Bullitt County known as the Valley of the Drums was a key factor in the passage of the Superfund law and resulted in and even greater emphasis on environmental protection. Mac tried to ensure that Bernheim’s limited financial resources were wisely managed and minimized expenditures whenever possible. He reduced the workforce at the forest by 25% while continuing to make needed and positive improvements.

Louisville Orchestra playing at the Garden Pavilion.

Among the notable accomplishments during Mac McClure’s time as Forest Manager/Director included a summer concert series with the Louisville Orchestra with musical headliners including Judy Collins.He extended the entrance road to form a loop around the arboretum which enhanced visitor access to botanical treasures such as the famed holly collection. After two failed attempts in 1932 and 1955 with farm raised turkeys, native wild caught birds were successfully reintroduced to Bernheim in 1982. The acquisition of those turkeys was a complex trade involving catfish from Louisiana, river otter from Alabama, and the turkeys from Missouri. Another needed change, but one not met with universal approval, was the 1992 introduction of an environmental impact fee for vehicles entering on weekends.

Mac McClure retired from his work at Bernheim in 1995 while still in the prime of his life. He continues to be active in numerous community organizations in Louisville and the surrounding area, often working with his wife, Spalding University President (and the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean) Tori Murden McClure.  Charles King ‘Mac’ McClure deserves recognition for his efforts to ensure that Bernheim remains faithful to its mission for many generations to come.

Ken Johnson, Bernheim 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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