By Sage Um

People make wreaths at festival.

Last weekend, for the first time ever, organizers of the Fall Family Festival at Boxerwood felt compelled to charge admission to the annual event at the nature center in Lexington because of the loss of a major source of funding.

The nonprofit woodland garden won, then lost a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) earlier this year because of federal budget cuts.

The NOAA grant would have helped the Boxerwood Education Association pay for the center’s operation for three years.

“We got nothing at all,” said Bruce Bytnar, a former national park ranger who is Boxerwood’s managing director. “And that really hurt us badly.”

It forced Boxerwood to charge non-member families and other patrons $5 per carload to the festival. In the previous 11 years, it was free.

The Middle-earth Studios theater troupe performed at the festival, at a cost of about $900, Bytnar said. The $5 admission fee helped pay for the two plays put on by the troupe, he said.

Boxerwood employs six staff members to care for the 30-acre grounds that feature trees, shrubs and plants. Its size challenges the fulltime employees, who rely heavily on volunteers to help with maintenance and other educational programs offered to teach children about the local environment.

“We’re now down to only six paid staff, all of them are part time, even though most of them are working more than full time. They’re only paid part time,” said Bytnar.

Earlier this year Tony Russell, who was then Boxerwood’s director, received notice that the NOAA grant had been approved. But by the time Bytnar replaced him this summer, Boxerwood had learned that the grant was eliminated. Making matters worse, Bytnar said, contributions from private organizations also were drying up.

Boxerwood must now rely on its members and the Rockbridge community to help continue its educational programs, he said.

The gardens have long been popular in the Lexington area. “Every person residing in Rockbridge County should take pride in Boxerwood’s presence in our community,” wrote Frank Parsons, a retired Washington and Lee University news director, in a letter to the editor of the News-Gazette last year.

This year’s festival included the Middle-earth Studios’ performances, “The Legend of the Unicorn” and “The Free Folk of Middle-earth,” and activities designed to raise awareness about protecting the local environment. Families made honeysuckle head-wreaths, folded origami dragons and learned how to test for clean water in streams and rivers.

Many community organizations manned booths at the festival, selling donuts, apple cider and other drinks. Washington and Lee’s Geology Department also displayed geodes, which are colorful rock formations. The Rockbridge Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals brought pets for families to adopt, and the Walkers Creek Volunteer Fire Department sold hotdogs and homemade baked goods.

People who attended the festival had the option of getting a refund of their $5 admission fee if they became members of Boxerwood. Membership dues are $35 for families and $15 for individuals.

“It is a time of difficulty for us all,” said Bytnar. “But we are definitely trying to make it work, and we will continue to inspire people into protecting the environment and our community.”

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