GREENBELT – In a continued fight between the city and a local nature group, the Mayor and City Council met Wednesday to discuss options for the organization to operate on city land without charging fees. Ancestral Knowledge, a nonprofit organization that teaches wilderness survival skills and other nature activities, has been fighting the city for […]
GREENBELT – In a continued fight between the city and a local nature group, the Mayor and City Council met Wednesday to discuss options for the organization to operate on city land without charging fees.
Ancestral Knowledge, a nonprofit organization that teaches wilderness survival skills and other nature activities, has been fighting the city for two years to be allowed to operate in the forest and charge fees for its classes.
The city, however, thinks the 200-acre forest preserve should not be used for any profit-making.
On Wednesday, council members made it clear they do not want to change guidelines prohibiting Ancestral Knowledge and other organizations from charging for activities on the land.
“The preserve is a separate unique entity,” said Davis. “It has more obligation, regulations around it, which we deliberately made to protect it. That was the city’s original intention.”
Davis has support from other council members and administrators.
“If we allow public activities in the forest, it will gradually turn into public park,” said Susan Gregerson, vice chair of the city’s Forest Preserve Advisory Board. “Why did we want to establish a preserve in 2003 in the first place?”
Gregerson argued activities on the land would deprive the forest of its status as a preserve.
Jonathan Murray, Ancestral Knowledge’s co-founder and president, wants the city to reconsider because the nonprofit “merely breaks even,” he said.
Murray filed a request with council in January of this year to revise the decision banning the nonprofit. Existing guidelines, which were passed in 2012, prohibit Ancestral Knowledge from teaching classes on the disputed land.
The co-founder said he does not understand why the city permits local Cub Scouts, which charge membership fees, to operate on the land, when his nonprofit could not.
City solicitor John Shay defended the city’s distinction.
“With Scouts, one pays a fee to be a member and then you participate in their activities,” he said. “In [Ancestral Knowledge’s] case, you’re paying money to take a class while the principal aspect of that class is to go to Greenbelt forest preserve.”
Council member Leta Mach said the city was firm in its prohibition of commercial activity on the city’s property.
Other programs have been likewise prohibited from operating within the preserve because of their plans to pay expenses on city property, she said.
“I don’t think it was different from the current issue,” said Mach.
Ancestral Knowledge’s past events have also been banned, according to City Manager Michael McLaughlin.
“One of the major activities [Ancestral Knowledge] was promoting was a summer camp, which was primarily held in the forest preserve,” he said. “Part of the issue was city property was being used without city permission. Fees were raised [and] activities were carried out on a regular basis. To my mind, many of their classes reminded of programs run by the city’s recreation department. But all those programs have been preliminarily reviewed by the city.”
Prior permission must be sought before they are hosted in the preserve, council members said. Because Ancestral Knowledge did not seek prior approval, its activities were banned.
Murray, a lifelong city resident, said he wants a solution.
“I wanted to have the same understanding what the problem is so that we could solve it,” he said.
Council members proposed options to Murray at the meeting.
Mayor Emmett Jordan suggested the nonprofit submit a formal request for a permit to operate within the preserve.
“As soon as you do that, the office of city manager will review the application and decide whether to reject or accept it or otherwise provide a feedback,” he said.
Councilman Rodney Roberts proposed Ancestral Knowledge hold its active activities—which include setting friction fires, teaching bow hunting and trapping animals—outside the preserve, while hosting free activities inside the preserve.
Davis agreed, suggesting a similar plan where attendees could hold additional free classes on the preserve after the end of the scheduled program, she said.
“One of the options could be that in addition to paid classes in the preserve, AK will provide a certain number of classes free of charge and open to the public. You may either extend your daily sessions by adding extra hours or hold additional classes at the end of your scheduled program,” Davis said.
Council members suggested the nonprofit would determine a time frame and indicate the number of free and open classes when submitting an application to the city manager for a review.
“You can still charge the same amount of money, classes can be the same amount of time,” Roberts said. “But the time you’re going to spend in the woods will be done by volunteers. You can give your classes, spread word about the preserve and at the same time, respect all the rules coming along meant to protect the forest preserve.”
Murray said it was clear that council members felt very strong about preserving the woods.
It did not seem, he said, there was any appetite to change the guidelines in any shape.
“At least, they said I should go back to the council instead of [the Forest Preserve Advisory Board],” he said. “I think it’s good because the majority at the Board, which made their decision, is not changing.”