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Anna Ruby visitor center opens again

After 3 years, service hires contractor to manage most popular tourist attraction

POSTED: June 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Debbie Gilbert/The Times

Bonnie Padios and son Elijah, visiting from Colorado, stroll down the paved, half-mile trail from Anna Ruby Falls. The U.S. Forest Service has contracted with a vendor to manage the Chattahoochee National Forest's most popular tourist attraction.

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The Chattahoochee National Forest has turned over management of its most popular tourist attraction to a private contractor.

In April, the visitor center at Anna Ruby Falls, a stunning double cascade north of Helen, reopened after being closed since 2005.

That year, the Forest Service cut its ties to a Gainesville-based volunteer organization that had operated gift shops at Anna Ruby and several other locations in the forest. But the federal agency did not have the manpower to staff the visitor center itself.

Early this spring, the Forest Service awarded a five-year contract for Anna Ruby to the Cradle of Forestry Interpretive Association, a nonprofit based in Brevard, N.C. The company already operates 44 gift shops and visitor centers on national forests in seven states.

Its contract for Anna Ruby could be potentially lucrative; the 153-foot waterfall typically draws about 200,000 visitors a year.

But Cradle of Forestry will have to do more than just sell merchandise. Its contract at Anna Ruby also includes tasks such as mowing the grass, cleaning the restrooms, assisting visitors, providing interpretive programs and collecting the $1-per-person parking fee.

"They have also agreed to make some improvements," said Janice Miller, recreation supervisor for the forest’s Chattooga River district, which includes Anna Ruby. "Most people tell me they’re pleased with the service they’re getting. We haven’t had any complaints."

Cindy Bullwinkle, director of sales for Cradle of Forestry, said the gift shop is stocked with items that have some connection to the natural history of North Georgia.

"We’re really excited to be there," she said. "Our objective is to educate the public about how we can be good stewards of the forest, and we feel that the products we’re offering are consistent with our mission."

Bullwinkle said her organization specializes in nature interpretation, rather than simply on retail sales.

"I think that may be what sets us apart from some of the other folks who bid on the contract," she said.

Miller said instead of bringing in its own employees from outside the state, Cradle of Forestry hired workers from Northeast Georgia who are already familiar with the area.

For Habersham County resident David Carswell, being hired as co-manager of the Anna Ruby Falls visitor center was like coming home again.

"I worked here from 2001 to 2004 as a seasonal interpretive specialist for the Forest Service. I lost my job due to budget cuts," he said.

But during his time working at the falls, Carswell said, he "fell in love with Anna Ruby." After being laid off by the Forest Service, he worked two seasons at Tallulah Gorge State Park.

"You can get a heatstroke there (in the summer)," he said. "Here (at Anna Ruby), it’s green, it’s lush, it’s 20 degrees more comfortable."

A half-mile, paved trail leads from the visitor center up to the falls. The path is steep, but it’s almost entirely shaded, and it’s right alongside the cold, swirling waters of Smith Creek.

"We patrol the trail all the time to make sure people stay on the path and stay safe," Carswell said.

He and some of the other 10 staff members have begun leading interpretive hikes, helping visitors learn about subjects such as plant and bird identification. During June, they’ve also been offering night hikes so people can see foxfire, a type of woodland fungus that glows in the dark.

At the visitor center, Cradle of Forestry is introducing changes aimed at making visitors’ experience more pleasant. For example, they’ve started selling ice cream, and they hope to offer a greater variety of foods beyond Cokes and candy bars.

Carswell said they’ve also begun stocking locally made crafts in the gift shop.

But he said one of the highest priorities for visitors seems to be clean restrooms, and they’re glad someone is on site full time to take care of that issue.

"That’s what everybody writes on their comment cards," he said. "They all say they’re happy about how clean it is."



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