Natural Leader

As he looks to retirement in 2010, Cleveland Metroparks executive director Vern Hartenburg talks about his 21 years of watching over the Emerald Necklace.

The idea is simple and distinctly American: setting aside large areas of natural land for the enjoyment of all rather than the wealthy few. For the past nine decades, the Cleveland Metroparks system has maintained and expanded the chain of natural public parks that stretch throughout Cuyahoga County and beyond.

Aside from being places to enjoy nature, the parks are also where we go to have cookouts, walk our dogs and ride our bikes. And for the past 20 years, Cleveland Metroparks executive director Vern Hartenburg has overseen the people, the resources and the money that keeps the park’s public golf courses trimmed, the picnic tables steady and the nature centers open.

Hartenburg, who recently announced he will retire in the fall of 2010, took the job just as the park system was climbing out of a scandal in which its former executive director had been convicted on multiple counts of theft in office.

During the past two decades, he has healed those wounds, expanded the park system with four new reservations spanning a total of 2,400 acres, and oversaw the creation of new Cleveland Metroparks Zoo exhibits, including a $22 million elephant habitat set to open spring 2011. We recently talked to Hartenburg to discuss his 21 years of stewardship. — BM

I really started as a farm boy in Michigan.

So the idea of caring for the soil, relying on nature to provide the rain and the sun to grow crops, raising farm animals and enjoying the wildlife ... all of those things I grew up with.

I came across this curriculum called Park and Recreation Administration offered at Michigan State University. It involved land and forestry and landscape and architecture and wildlife, but it also involved people.

There was just a real pain and broken heartedness — not to sound corny — among local residents. There were high expectations of both citizens and staff to restore the Emerald Necklace to its prominence, to the source of pride that we once knew.

People don’t really know my name, and that’s as it should be.

If you look at the 100- to 150-year history of parks in America, you go back to Central Park and Frederick Law Olmsted, who is considered the father of landscape architecture and park design. His vision was to create these large pastoral areas with winding roads and big ponds that might be 2,000 or 3,000 acres in size.

The Emerald Necklace was a large suburban system. Many of the parks were like the Olmsted vision. But the folks in Cleveland’s center core and the first-tier suburbs weren’t being serviced.

The four new parks are in the urban core of Cleveland, like the Ohio and Erie Canal reservation, which is 350 acres right in the heart of the city, literally a half mile from where the river burned.

I would suggest people visit the Tinker’s Creek National Natural Landmark in the Bedford Reservation. It’s a gorge that is incredibly beautiful and … every bit as dramatic as something you might see in the Appalachian or Smokey Mountain foothills.

The natural environment is where my heart is.

It’s fun to point to the [zoo’s] Rainforest or Australian Adventures; those are all really great exhibits. But as far as really making an impact on the future of wildlife, I’d suggest it’s the efforts that our scientists are doing.

There’s one little perk of being executive director that makes me smile.

Every day when I walk into my office [at the zoo], there are either fresh flowers or a fresh plant. … The [zoo’s] horticulturist makes sure there is something green and fresh and alive in my office.

I have appreciated it for 21 years.

Share this story: