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Outdoors: NaturePlex explored

Photo by John Felsher
Photo by John Felsher

Facility gives visitors a taste of the Alabama outdoors

By the early 20th century, once abundant wildlife resources declined to crisis levels throughout the United States. In 1935, some hunters and fishermen decided to do something about that and founded the Alabama Wildlife Federation.

“The AWF is the oldest and largest non-profit citizen’s conservation organization in Alabama,” says Tim Gothard, the AWF executive director. “AWF was founded by hunting and angling conservationists who were passionate about the outdoors and wanted to bring back the abundant wildlife resources they remembered we had earlier in this country and maintain them for future generations. Our three primary focus areas are conservation education, resource stewardship and preserving hunting and angling heritage.”

In October 2015, the AWF opened the NaturePlex on a magnificent wilderness oasis in Millbrook just up Interstate 65 from Montgomery. Today this complex more than achieves the three AWF conservation goals. In the first year, more than 30,000 people, half of them school children, visited the 23,000-square-foot facility.

A simulated beehive, left, and bat cave are among the displays inside. Photo by John Felsher
A simulated beehive, left, and bat cave are among the displays inside. Photo by John Felsher

“The NaturePlex represents a unique and extraordinary opportunity to touch the lives of both youth and adults,” says Marla Ruskin, an AWF communications specialist. “At the same time, we will also be taking steps to ensure that the generations to follow will understand the importance of being good stewards of the wildlife and other natural resources with which we have been richly blessed.”

At NaturePlex, children and adults enjoy the interactive and visual displays describing wildlife and habitats in the Cotton State. In the Discovery Hall, visitors can venture inside a simulated beehive or a bat cave, see small live creatures and much more. Afterward, view an informative movie in the 120-seat auditorium, watch the staff feed animals or peruse the items in the Bear Den Gift Shop. Sometimes, temporary traveling exhibits supplement the permanent displays.

Many schools arrange field trips to the facility. Periodically throughout the year, people can also participate in special programs. For the complete calendar of events, see

“We have planned activities going on all the time,” Ruskin says. “Every third Thursday night, bring the entire family out for a special program. Saturdays are always a big deal at the NaturePlex with movies playing throughout the day and special activities planned. The NaturePlex can be reserved for school field trips, teacher training workshops, seminars and other educational programs.”

In the summer, children ranging from 5 to 15 years old can attend various day camps. In his 10 years on Earth, Scott Graydon of Pike Road attended day camps for five summers.

“I love coming, here,” Scott says. “The pool is my favorite thing. I also like when we go to the creek where we make clay faces. We went to the aquatic center where we caught some bugs and bullfrogs and then went swimming in the lake. I liked seeing the snakes and holding them. I also liked making all the different stuff we did.”

Outside the NaturePlex building, visitors can explore the 350-acre Alabama Nature Center located on the historic Lanark estate. Isabel and Wiley Hill moved to Lanark in 1948 and built a house across a stream from an antebellum home. For the next 50 years, the Hills kept enlarging their home and tending to a 30-acre garden. Acquired in 2003, the property now serves as the headquarters for 25,000 AWF members.

Center visitors can walk on a mile of boardwalks running through sensitive wetlands or hike four miles of trails wandering through pine and upland hardwood forests. People can also fish in three lakes or enjoy the 7,200-square-foot Lanark Pavilion. People can make reservations to hold weddings, corporate functions and other events.

“Everything that we do here is really a testament to private individuals, corporations and foundations around the state who share that same passion that we have for striking that balance between use, management and protection of our outdoors resources so that future generations can enjoy them in the way that we have been able to do,” Gothard says. 

For more information, visit



John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who writes from Semmes, Ala. Contact him through his website at