The State Botanical Garden of Georgia is more than “a pretty place,” and Director Wilf Nichols has been determined during his short tenure that all of Georgia and beyond knows this.

In fact, the garden, located in Athens on S. Milledge Avenue, fulfills several critical requirements of the University of Georgia, a land-grant university charged upon its establishment with providing education, research and service to Georgia citizens. As a unit of the University of Georgia’s Public Service and Outreach, admission to the garden is free, educational opportunities abound and research focused on conservation of native Georgia plants are core to its mission.

Yet to operate the 318-acre complex and to fund a full-time staff of 28 and dozens of seasonal workers costs $1.7 million a year.

“The university provides us $1 million for operations, but we still have to come up with $700,000 annually to stay afloat,” said Nichols. That’s why, in 2010 during the state’s economic crisis and also the year Nichols was named director, the state Legislature considered closing the garden altogether.

“Thankfully, it did not happen, but it happened before,” said Nichols, who noted the original garden closed more than 150 years ago, the land sold, and the proceeds used to commission the storied black iron Arch on the UGA campus. Today, the garden depends on rental income by hosting events and the generosity of benefactors for the $700,000 needed annually to keep the garden in the green, so to speak.

Following years without one, the current garden opened in 1968. Nichols said about 200,000 visitors come to the garden annually from all over the state. Educational outreach last year touched more than 11,000 adults and children.

But, as Nichols presented to our club May 20, it was apparent his personal passion is in the conservation of native species and outreach to children to connect to nature.

Nichols cited several examples of native plants that face extinction today, including rare pitcher plants found in Statesboro. With help from the state botanical garden, and others, these plants were rescued and spared from the blades of development.

“We don’t own this land; we are supposed to be stewards of it,” he said. “Simply, we are botanical guardians. Should we allow another species to go ‘belly up’? You bet these efforts are worthwhile.”

While Nichols lamented today’s youngest generation’s lack of connection to nature, he revealed a silver lining created through local philanthropy. In 2008, the family of Alice H. Richards, connected forever to Carroll County through the company Southwire, provided $1 million to create a children’s garden at the Athens location. The children’s garden will replace a current parking lot adjacent to the complex and will cost a total of $4.6 million to build.

“We are going to make paradise by pulling up a parking lot,” Nichols said, playing on language in a popular 1970 protest song by Joni Mitchell.

“It is so important for us to reach this generation,” he said. “How can they protect our earth in the future if they have no connection to it?”

The Rotary Club of Carrollton meets every Tuesday at noon at Sunset Hills Country Club. To learn more about the club, visit rotaryclubofcarrollton.org.