How Jeffrey Corney Is Positioning the Cincinnati Nature Center to Tackle Environmental Issues

Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

Cincinnati Nature Center (CNC) has been busy since Jeffrey Corney took the reins from former Director Bill Hopple in May 2019. The Michigan-born, Ohio State University–educated Corney and his Ohio-native wife started their family in Minnesota, where he headed the University of Minnesota’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. A directorship at The Wilderness Center in northeast Ohio brought them back to the state in 2014.

I spoke with Corney in his cozy, wood-paneled office in Krippendorf Lodge on CNC’s grounds in Milford, where his standing desk looks out into the woods.

CNC was recently part of a successful fight against a large residential development upstream along Avey’s Run, the creek that feeds into your property. Why defend spaces like this?

A lot of nature centers like this have their origins in the 1960s. My predecessor was part of this second generation of directors who built them from that quaint cabin in the woods to a community juggernaut. I consider myself a third generation director who’s looking at a rather interesting time for environmental issues, with stiff political and economic headwinds and development all around us.

But here’s the rub: It’s not just about protecting the environment. Really, it’s protecting us. It’s as much about human health as it is the about the environment. That’s my argument. Papers are coming out left and right showing that a healthy environment makes for healthy people. Oftentimes in preserving natural areas, it looks as if we’re opposed to agriculture or development, which is not true. The same goes for that false dichotomy of the environment vs. the economy. Also not true. We are an economic force. We provide recreational opportunities. We have somewhere on the order of 230,000 visitors per year.

Is it challenging balancing the impact of so many visitors with preserving the natural landscape?

Frankly, not so much. Ninety percent of the human traffic stays within a quarter mile of where you are right now [Krippendorf Lodge]. Most of the impact is concentrated in the built space close to the CNC. That helps us control and contain. The PlayScape is a perfect example—two acres worth of dedicated space for kids to play in the dirt and move stuff around instead of heading out into the woods, where we prefer people stay on the trails.

CNC has been stepping up invasive species eradication. What do you say to those who love non-nativesthe daffodils, for exampleplanted by former property owner Carl Krippendorf?

We embrace the daffodils because they’re something unique about this place. While we’re very much about land conservation and controlling invasives, daffodils are not an invasive. Not all non-natives are invasive. So things like honeysuckle, lesser celandine, and other species that are doing damage to the ecosystem are one thing. With the daffodils, we’re quietly controlling the edges.

What are people most surprised to find out about Cincinnati Nature Center?

I think one is that we have a variety of programs beyond just learning about plants and birds. Programs on science and natural history, sure, but also outdoor yoga and even the Japanese practice of “forest bathing.” Another is that we have a second property over in Goshen, around 800 acres at Long Branch Farm. Only members really know about it because you can only get in with your membership card. It has its own set of trails, its own unique beauty.

CNC recently worked on the levees surrounding the ponds, removing trees and so forth. Was this a matter of not letting roots erode those structures?

Over time, earthworks can begin to erode or new technologies and stipulations for safety are put in place. They need periodic maintenance. The one on Crosley Lake got a bit of an upgrade. Those date from the creation of the Nature Center in the 1960s. Back then the National Audubon Society had a big influence on the concept of nature centers and would do consults. Part of it was, if you didn’t already have a pond or lake, they recommended you create one to attract waterfowl because it creates an ecosystem we know existed at one time. Or even if it didn’t literally exist here, it becomes a refuge for wildlife. And they’re aesthetic and recreational.

It’s interesting that part of this “natural” area is actually a built space.

That sounds like a little bit of a contradiction, but nature centers are not preserves in the sense that we’re going to hide away the land. A nature center is an interface with society to say, Hey, step in here and enjoy a bit of the wilderness, part of what once was. Enjoy it at whatever level you’re comfortable with.

Some people love to come and just hang out at the visitor center. Some like the Discovery Walk, which is disability-accessible for three-quarters of a mile. Some people go pretty hardcore and take our most remote trails, then come back and sit in front of the fire.

Cincinnati Nature Center, 4949 Tealtown Rd., Milford, (513) 552-1340

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