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A Natural in Nature

Meet Autrey Mill Nature Preserve Executive Director, Lizen Hayes

On pleasant afternoons, Lizen Hayes’ gaze wanders from her laptop on her office desk to watch turtles and frogs frolic in the Star Pond and deer grazing on grasses and persimmons. She listens for the song birds, a welcome reminder that she is doing her job. As Executive Director at The Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center, she oversees the 46 acre preserve with three miles of scenic trails, a tribe of animals including goats, ducks, snakes and other reptiles, a historic village and the visitors center in Johns Creek. 

“I am extremely lucky to have the support of past and present Autrey Mill board members, volunteers, and dedicated staff,” says Lizen. “I love working with the community, kids, animals and in the gardens. My hope is to continually improve upon the work and visions that came before me to ensure the accessibility and future of Autrey Mill Nature Preserve as a valued community space.”

She was first introduced to Autrey Mill in 2017 when her family volunteered to walk goats and explore becoming docents. “My wife and I adopted an 11 year girl and we were trying to find a way for our new family to connect to each other and our community. Goat walking ended up being a challenge and a great bonding activity for my new family.”

With a degree in museum studies and experience at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, when her career in promotional marketing came to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, she took a leap of faith and applied to work at Autrey Mill as a program administrator. “I started off as admin support and eventually my role grew. One wears many hats in non-profit work. The previous Executive Director moved to Texas be closer to family and I was called upon by the Autrey Mill board to fill the position.”

The Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center of today was built under the leadership and vision of the board, talented staff, and local government officials. Identified as a potential nature preserve by Fulton County in 1972, but not purchased, advocates stepped up when zoning threatened the property in 1987. This grassroots effort saved the woodland's unique environment and the site of the old Autrey grist mill. It also prevented the demolition of the historic buildings on the property. 

“I love to sit on the swing in our butterfly garden in the quiet morning and drink my coffee. And on nice days you will find me and my co-workers at the picnic tables in front of the visitor center working on our computers, having a meeting, or eating lunch together,” says Lizen, who holds a deep respect for the land, its history and the volunteers who make everything possible.

“Autrey Mill would never be able to offer educational family and kids programming and care for our animal ambassadors without the support of our dedicated community, volunteers, board members, and other local organizations who dedicate over 2000 volunteer hours a year to help us run our programs,” she says. They also host corporate volunteer workgroups for scouts and individuals who want to give back. 

This month, on Saturday, May 6, Autrey Mill will be a stop on the Johns Creek Beautification, Secret Garden Tour. This is also the time of year that the endangered wild orchid the lady slipper is in bloom. Join a guided tour of the secret patches of lady slippers during the garden tour. Each Sunday in May there is a Sunday Social where a program host will lead a craft or activity in front of a historic building open for tours.

Say hello to Lizen next time you're at Autrey Mill. You'll recognize her by her warm and welcoming smile. Find events and volunteer opportunities at