Blue Heron Nature Preserve’s future lies in trails connecting it to other green spaces like Chastain Park and PATH400, says Executive Director Kevin McCauley.

“It’s really to connect us all in a way we’ve never been connected before,” he said, referring to a trail expansion program slated to begin this year. “It changes how people perceive their neighborhoods.”

Kevin McCauley, executive director of the Blue Heron Nature Preserve, points to a map of the future trails. (Isadora Pennington)

McCauley took over as executive director at the end of 2016 after a co-founder of the preserve, Nancy Jones, stepped down. He said giving people access to nature preserves like Blue Heron makes them more aware of why nature is worth protecting.

“We find that when people have a first-hand experience with nature, they become more committed to finding ways to protect and preserve it,” he said, during a recent visit to the Roswell Road preserve.

The first phase of the planned trail expansion, scheduled to start later this year with a planned June 2018 completion, will cost $600,000. It will add three miles of “soft trails,” which can be used by walkers and runners, within the preserve’s grounds. Soft trails are less harmful to the environment than trails with concrete foundations, McCauley said.

Many trails in the preserve are incomplete or lack wayfinding signs, McCauley said. The preserve also will make them accessible for people with disabilities where possible, he said.

The second phase will be to build trails connecting the preserve to Chastain Park, a $3 million project. No start time has been set, but completion is scheduled for 2021.

Once those trails are completed, people could bike or walk from Buckhead to Blue Heron and from the preserve to Chastain Park.

One of Blue Heron Nature Preserve’s walking trails. (Isadora Pennington)

“You could spend your day visiting all these amenities without having to get into your car,” McCauley said.

The paths will also connect Sarah Smith Elementary to the preserve, allowing students to use the preserve as an outdoor classroom.

A third phase, connecting to PATH400, is still in the early stages, McCauley said, and definite plans have not been laid out.

McCauley did acknowledge that some reactions to plans have been negative. “The initial response is resistance,” McCauley said, but he is working with homeowners and apartment complexes in the area that the trails would affect, and said he so far has been able to dissuade their fears.

McCauley said their main concerns are about security, safety and proper lighting. These are the same concerns most pathway construction projects, such as PATH400, have to overcome, he said.

The apartment complex the trails would affect, Post Chastain, declined to comment.

The preserve received a $150,000 grant from Park Pride, a nonprofit organization, to help it build the trails. The preserve will raise most of $3.6 million needed for the first two phases through fundraising and transportation sales tax funding.

Another recent change at the preserve is the arrival of the Amphibian Foundation. Founded by Mark Mandica, the foundation researches endangered species, such as the nearly extinct flatwoods salamander, and breeds them in captivity.

One of the nature preserve’s trails. (Isadora Pennington)

In addition to the frogs and other amphibians, four beavers call the preserve home. Two mated in 2014 and have had two babies since then. The beavers have built a dam in one of the ponds on the property, and McCauley said preserve officials are committed to protecting the animals.

“We’re not naive to think that in an urban environment a beaver can be successful on its own because there’s a lot of factors we have caused that makes it hard for them,” he said. Those factors include runoff rain from parking lots and roads causing large amounts of water to flood into the stream.

Beavers are sometimes considered nuisance animals because they destroy trees, McCauley said, but they also create habitats that are rare, especially for urban environments. The beavers’ dam holds water and has made the area suitable for other animals, such as birds, turtles and frogs.

The preserve will host several Earth Day events on April 22, including working to restore the preserve, a “critter celebration” hosted by the Amphibian Foundation, live music and a workshop on building a wildlife sanctuary.

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