Atlanta church rehabilitates property into accessible nature preserve
Central Congregational United Church of Christ is nestled among eight acres of pristine forest just 600 feet from a major four-lane road in the middle of Atlanta. Built with glass walls, the church building offers woodland views on all sides. With few green spaces left in the city, members feel as if the church’s property is a sanctuary in the middle of the urban metropolis. But with no trails and with invasive plants taking over, few people ever ventured into the woods to play in the creek or marvel at the 100-year-old trees. So Ron Smith decided to do something about it, rehabilitating the Central UCC Nature Preserve to make it an accessible outdoor refuge for all to enjoy.
“We see this as an opportunity not only to give something back to the environment and take care of the wildlife, but also to educate the community about the value in it and create a green space the community can use,” said Smith, head of the church’s gardening team. “It has a connectedness to the church.”
The church’s property was designated a wildlife preserve by the National Wildlife Federation about five years ago, which Smith says initiated the desire to turn the property into something more. Soon after, Smith, a member of the Georgia Native Plant Society who has a passion for nature, began revitalizing the property, first making a trail that leads to the creek. The next thing he knew, people were using the trail he had built, children were playing in the water, and groups wanted to help.
“I was excited that they made the area a wildlife preserve, and I thought, if they did that, we would need to rehabilitate it,” he said. “It was a big commitment, but as I got started other people became aware of it. We have found it’s really getting people together in a way.”
Smith has organized several opportunities this spring for Central UCC members to contribute to the effort. In April, volunteers helped to renew the trials with mulch. In May, volunteers are helping to plant hundreds of native plants and grasses as part of the creek restoration project. Smith studied how to build a riparian buffer along a half-acre of the creek, which helps the plants grow and limits the regrowth of invasive species. The next planting session will take place on Saturday, May 16, and Smith hopes to get at least a dozen volunteers.
The church also built a pollinator garden at its front entrance, which was recognized as the 2013 Pollinator Garden of the Year by the Monarchs Across Georgia committee of the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia. Local Eagle Scout units and Girl Scout troops have worked in the woods, and the congregation is in the process of establishing a community garden on site. The preserve will also be the location of Camp Beech Grove, a summer camp for children in kindergarten through third grade taking place June 1 through July 10. Smith will lead the children on walks through the woods every Thursday afternoon.
“It has gotten a lot of people involved,” Smith said. “This project has just grown.”
Smith notes that he recently saw a red fox in the woods for the first time. Knowing that the preserve is home to such wildlife reminds him of the importance of maintaining green spaces for all of God’s creatures.
“We really need to provide sustenance to the wildlife,” he said. “That is what drives me.”
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