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Looking to the future of experiencing nature, as seen at Blue Heron Nature Preserve

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New boardwalks ease the rigors of exploring the Blueway Trail. Credit: Blue Heron Nature Preserve

By David Pendered

Atlanta’s Blue Heron Nature Preserve has started “Spread Your Wings,” a social distancing program with a broader purpose of expanding the preserve’s role as an urban ecology center oriented around a new three-mile trail system that traverses ridgelines across 30 acres in Buckhead.

A bridge installed on the Blueway Trail, near Emma Wetlands, has connected five separate microclimates in Blue Heron Nature Preserve. Credit: David Pendered

Blue Heron may still be best known for its place in folklore – a wooded tract snatched from the jaws of development by a schoolteacher and her supporters. As a site where Nancy Jones, then an art teacher at Sarah Smith Elementary School, fostered the beginnings of a preserve where nature could be, nature – without the heavy hand of mowers and blowers and weed killer.

Now in its 20th year, the preserve is turning to meet the requirements of this era. The threat of COVID-19 is changing social folkways every day, the standards of behavior that guide how individuals interact, including at Blue Heron’s educational workshops, art programs and conservation efforts.

Some programs continue as virtual gatherings. The park remains open to visitors.

“Moving forward, in our new normal, we’re going to tap into our resourcefulness and innovation and creativity to broaden our reach into the surrounding community and Atlanta,” Melody Harclerode, the preserve’s executive director, said Monday.

Norris Broyles spoke frequently of the present and future during a walking tour this past weekend. Broyles, who chairs the board that oversees Blue Heron Nature Preserve, sees it as a place where children can still gather by a stream and play with sticks, without a watchful eye making certain that the sticks are put back in place. That’s in keeping with Blue Heron’s mission as an outdoor classroom, he said, as founder Nancy Jones saw the place.

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Morning sunlight streams through the canopy at Blue Heron Nature Preserve. Credit: David Pendered

Broyles also has an eye on the past, and an appreciation for the significance of the land on which the preserve is established.

“It’s really like a lost valley,” Broyles said. “It’s part of the old Wiley Moore estate. He had a private pond and a number of grist mills on Mill Creek. In contrast to Chastain Park, which is a controlled recreational asset, this is wild and a place where you can experience nature on its own terms, instead of in a botanical garden type of setting.”

Blue Heron is a city-owned park that is overseen by an independent board that manages its operations and maintenance. Similar groups oversee public parks including Piedmont Park. Blue Heron exceeded its first-ever fundraising goal of $750,000, bringing in more than $900,000 for the Blueway Trail.

Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook provides support at Atlanta City Hall, as he did earlier this year with a $5,000 grant from his carry forward account to assist with the preserve’s new, three-mile Blueway Trail.

The Spread Your Wings campaign intends to support the types of programs outlined in the preserve’s impact statement. Highlights include:

  • 2,710 students experienced an outdoors classroom;
  • 111 scouts earned a badge with community service projects;
  • 621 volunteer hours provided shared outdoor experiences;
  • Arts programs provide both outdoor and indoor installations.

Spread Your Wings is the new campaign that reminds of social distancing – the average wingspan of a blue heron is 6 feet – and promotes the educational programs at Blue Heron Nature Preserve. Credit: Blue Heron Nature Preserve

Dottie Head works closely with Blue Heron in her role as communications director with the Atlanta Audubon Society. The Audubon Society has its headquarters at the preserve, as does the Amphibian Foundation.

“Blue Heron is really unique because it is a little patch of habitat right in the center of North Buckhead, which is unusual,” Head said Monday. “There are a lot of bird species in the area, a surprising variety of birds both migratory and those that stay here. … The Blueway Trail gives access to being outdoors, which people really want – being outside, seeing birds – and we’ll see that continue even after the restrictions open.

“This is a fun place to be involved in,” Head said. “We all collaborate on several urban ecology programs for teens, with the Amphibian Foundation and Blue Heron and Atlanta Audubon each bringing our own perspective. Habitat drives all of our work.”

At a rest spot along the Blueway Trail, Norris Broyles, board chair, and Melody Harclerode, executive director, of Blue Herron Nature Preserve, pause during a morning walk. Credit: David Pendered


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New boardwalks ease the rigors of exploring the Blueway Trail. Credit: Blue Heron Nature Preserve


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A beaver dam is being installed to slow the flow of water streaming from an origin near parking areas at Phipps Plaza and Lenox Square. Credit: David Pendered

David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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