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Wourms finds unique chance to lead Bernheim

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By Mallory Bilger

CLERMONT — Dr. Mark Wourms has an impressive scientific background when it comes to botany, biology, conservation, preservation and zoology.

But that background blossomed out of something much more personal — a deep-rooted love for nature that began as a young boy in Dayton, Ohio.

“I’ve always been fascinated by nature, since I was kid. I was always out looking under logs and finding bugs,” he explained, smiling.

Wourms has served as Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest’s Executive Director for one year this month. He enjoys reflecting upon the past that created the building blocks for his present-day career.

“Aquariums, terrariums, I had them all. My mother used to freak but she let us do it anyway. I’ve always been a student of nature.”

Wourms has served in managerial positions across the country in zoos, forests and arboretums from New York to California. Before coming to Bernheim, he served as the Los Angeles Arboretum Foundation’s Chief Executive Officer and as the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation’s Executive Officer. 

The Bernheim position was a drastic but welcomed change.

Wourms said information about Bernheim’s Executive Director position came across his desk last year. At first he thought of other colleagues who might fit the position. But then he and his wife discussed the possibility of moving their two boys to an area that could possibly offer a more ideal home life for the family. It was that, coupled with the enticing opportunity to run a 14,000-acre private forest, that led Wourms to Bernheim.

“What attracted me to Bernheim is its unique nature,” Wourms said, citing the forest as one of the largest privately-owned in the eastern United States.

Wourms said he loved Bernheim’s commitment to research, habitat restoration, education, art, community involvement and sustainability. He noted that the Bernheim Visitor’s Center is a certified U.S. Green Building. While serving as a visitor’s center, the building also creates oxygen, supports plant and animal life, protects water sources, uses sunlight for energy, cleans the air, adapts to the seasons and more.

It’s programs like creating Green Buildings that Wourms wants to expand.

He also has launched a plan to revive Bernheim’s relationship with its neighbors, including Bullitt, Nelson, Jefferson and surrounding counties. Wourms said he wants to increase the forest’s visibility, especially in surrounding communities.

“Some people who grew up here don’t know what Bernheim has to offer. We can’t connect people with nature if they have no idea who we are, where we are or what we are,” he said.

New programs such as CONNECT and the forest’s 80th anniversary celebration are part of Wourms’ efforts to reconnect with the community. CONNECT is an initiative to help busy, young individuals unite with nature and what it has to offer. The event is scheduled for Sept. 12 and will include experimental science, art, nature and music events.

“It has to be fun, funky and it has to be modern. It’s to help people find nature in their lives again,” Wourms said.

Another goal of Wourms’ includes building new networks that will help facilitate all Bernheim has to offer. Bernheim features a wealth of fun, knowledge and resources that Wourms said must be made publicly available in accessible ways.

Wourms also wants more time spent on the forest’s gardens and plant collections. He said although it is wonderful that Bernheim offers thousands of species of plant life, many of those species are arranged in rigid ways. He wants to create plant communities that are more like what people would find in a wild forest or in their own backyard.

“We want to build examples of how you can build your community of plants,” he said.

While overseeing new initiatives and perfecting existing ones, Wourms said his true commitment is to making Bernheim a place of learning, fun, and ultimately a place that teaches a busy generation that conservation and preservation of green spaces have never been more important.

Bernheim will continue to couple science, art and community in a collaboration that will make the world a better place, he said.

Wourms’ personal philosophy is that he wouldn’t create or support any program that he wouldn’t participate in himself.

“I want to get to know the programs and the people . . . the way to do that is to live them and experience them. We will continue to tweak and improve our programs. I want to get to know our audience. Our mission is connecting people with nature.”

Wourms said there are many questions that will help form Bernheim’s future, perhaps the most important being: “What are you looking for when you come through?”

While he has set high goals, Wourms said the forest will face challenges. Among those include being a not-for-profit research facility that relies heavily upon public donations. He said Bernheim must generate more revenue in order to fund research and better programs. He wants to make the forest’s cutting-edge research more visible, while tackling the every day challenges of managing 23 square miles of forest.

But Wourms said he’s ready for the challenge.

“Every day I find something else to be excited about,” he said.