Isaac W. Bernheim has been gone for more than 70 years, but his greatest legacy lives on – literally.
Now, it is threatened. I’ll get back to that.
The Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest turned 90 this year. Located in Bullitt County, its 16,137 acres of land are home to literally millions of trees. In fact, some 8,000 varieties of trees, shrubs and perennials can be found there.
It also is home to a variety of animals, including some rare species of snails and bats.
Bernheim, a German-Jewish peddler who once sold household wares on horseback, went on to make a killing in the bourbon trade. Grateful to Kentucky for his success, he purchased the land that would become the arboretum – 13,300 acres at the time – in 1929. He envisioned a woodland, open to all, that would celebrate, not only nature, but the arts.
Which is why sculptures can be found throughout the arboretum, including the current exhibit, “Forest Giants,” a family of giants, made from recycled wood by Danish artist Thomas Dambo.
Arguably, the Bernheim represents Kentucky’s greatest mitzvah, and not just for its beauty.
The forest is a wellspring for human life, producing 102 billion pounds of oxygen per year, offsetting 465 million pounds of carbon – the equivalent of 45,853 vehicles. It protects 22 billion gallons of water annually, grows 2,400 pounds of organic produce and boasts more than 40 miles of hiking trails.
Clearly, the forest makes for healthy living in the Bluegrass State.
It’s also an economic engine for Bullitt County. It attracted 300,000 visitors this past June, easily blowing by the 270,000 recorded for all of 2018. Officials expect to hit 500,000 by the end of the year.
Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport of The Temple, (Bernheim was a member of Adath Israel), said the philanthropist had a deep love of nature, likely rooted in his boyhood, growing up near the Black Forest in Germany. He wanted to share that love with his adopted state.
“He had a lifelong interest in community service,” Rapport said, “and creating a park that would be open to the public as a whole – all Kentuckians regardless of race, creed and national origin.”
That mission holds true today. While donation levels are suggested, the park does not charge for admission.
Naturally, culturally and philanthropically, the Bernheim brims with life, but it wasn’t always that way.
When Bernheim bought the land, it hardly resembled the rich ecosystem it is today. Exploited by timber and iron ore interests, it had been horribly clear-cut and used for grazing land. It took years to restore the land to its former beauty.
Now, it is threatened again.
The state and one of its largest utilities may seize land from the Bernheim. Louisville Gas & Electric is in the process of suing the forest management, and at least one other landowner, in Bullitt County Court to take a swath of land by eminent domain for construction of a 12-mile natural gas pipeline.
For the Bernheim, it’s not a small take. According to Executive Director Mark K. Wourms, LG&E wants a right-of-way three quarters of a mile long and 75 feet wide. He said 6.5 acres of trees would be lost.
“Forever,” he quickly added.
The take would also ignore conservation easements the forest used to acquire additional property, posing a risky precedent for other preserves in the state.
LG&E says Bullitt County is growing and existing gas lines are nearing capacity, necessitating the project, but Bernheim says LG&E has kept property owners in the dark by not disclosing a study and map of the proposed route.
The Bernheim has complained about to the Public Service Commission, alleging the utility did not follow proper procedure.
The other threat is a proposed highway connector between Interstates 65 and 71. Several routes are under consideration, including two that would cut through the forest. A study to determine project need and feasibility and identify potential corridors – not specific roadway alignments – will be completed by the end of the year.
“We understand the importance of the area,” said Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman Jordan Smith, “and this study will help us determine the best path forward that considers multiple factors, including environmental concerns.”
But both projects would debilitate the forest, Wourms said.
“What makes Bernheim so special is not just it’s size,” Wourms said. “It is largely integral,” which protects species’ habitat. Introducing “cuts” or “breaks” to the tract, he said, could introduce invasive species, predators and climate change that could ruin habitat.
So Bernheim officials are taking their case to the public, holding roadshows around the area, encouraging people to launch petition drives and send letters to their representatives.
“We need you all be loud,” Wourms told one such gathering at a Louisville brewpub.
They have also approached Jewish Louisville for help. The Temple is planning a special Save Bernheim Shabbat at 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 22., and JOFEE will hold a restaurant night on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at Monnik Brewery.
The Bernheim isn’t opposed to progress, Wourms said, but each project has alternative routes that could spare the forest. Green energy is also a realistic – and cheaper – alternative to gas.
The Bernheim will fight both threats in court, Wourms said, though nothing there is guaranteed.
“It’s really the court of public opinion that will make the difference,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community. For more information on the threats, visit https://bit.ly/2kQzL3o.)