By: Samantha Dean
With spring upon us and summer right around the corner, take the opportunity to explore approximately 400 acres of newly acquired conservation land in Gainesville.
The cry of an eagle cuts through the early morning quiet.
His commands ring above the faint chirps of other birds soaring above the park.
This particular bald eagle has made a home of Palm Point Nature Park, located on the edge of Newnan’s Lake in Gainesville.
Soon, the park area will expand by 153 acres in part of a mass acquisition of land by Gainesville’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department.
This is one park in six that will expand its conservation area. Flatwoods Conservation Area, 29th Road Nature Park, Green Acres Park, Morningside Nature Center and Fred Cone Park will all gain a total of about 400 acres in the expansion effort.
Steven Phillips, director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, said this effort was made possible through a surplus of funds from a half-cent sales tax Gainesville residents approved in 2008. The Wild Spaces-Public Places Half-Cent Sales Tax Initiative, which had a two-year life, accumulated more than $12 million and $2.2 million was dedicated to land acquisition.
“This is a huge amount because, up until the half-cent sales tax, only $425,000 was allocated to expansion each year,” Phillips said.
He said this tax has allowed the city to buy a lot more land in a shorter period of time than it normally would be able to.
Stefanie Nagid, program coordinator of the Natural Resources Management section, said 20 percent of the tax went to conservation and the rest is put into infrastructure development of parks and recreational facilities.
Back at Palm Point, the chirping of the birds reaches an all-time high. The hollow knocks of a woodpecker can be heard in the distance. Occasionally, the slap of the water as a bird slices through the surface breaks up the calls of the birds.
This area will gain the most land in the conservation effort. Currently, the park is a skinny strip of land running along the edge of the lake. After the newly acquired land is added, it will push back deeper from the water — a lot deeper.
Linda Demetropoulos, nature operations and cultural affairs division manager, said the community has been vocal about wanting more shoreline access, so this new area will answer those calls.
She said the city may include additional fishing points, canoe launches, pedestrian crossing to access the land across the small road and, hopefully, additional parking.
On a cold Friday morning, the current parking space has room for about five cars, and all of the space is overtaken by a couple of pickup trucks and a few compact cars.
Down the road, more pickup trucks line the edge, parked in the long grass on the border of the lake. Men with fishing poles jump from the truck’s bed.
“Cars line up on the side of the road on weekends,” Nagid said, “so we are hoping for larger parking for safety reasons.”
As the wind whistles through the trees on this frigid morning, Demetropoulos bends to scoop up broken beer bottles along the way, throwing them into recycling bins located at the entrance of the park.
Nagid said cleanup will be significant in the newly acquired lands. She said volunteer efforts usually help to accomplish this faster.
Phillips said a management plan is in the works.
“It’s a cookbook of what we’re going to do with that land,” he said.
Phillips has been with the parks department since 1986 when he first came on as nature manager. He said he first worked with the Green Space Advisory Board and recommended recreation areas to the city.
Since his time with the city, Phillips said about 2,700 acres of conservation land has been added throughout Gainesville.
“I had a lot of involvement in that,” he said, “and I’m very proud of the people who got that together.”
Phillips often quotes the department’s slogan of “Where Culture and Nature Meet” when describing his motivation. He said this endeavor brings a draw throughout the country and state and makes Gainesville a hotspot. Bird and butterfly watchers for example, frequent the area.
One of his prouder projects has been Morningside Nature Center.
“Never in my tenure with my city did I think we would be able to expand that park, and now we have,” he said.
A bright, green house sits on the edge of the newly acquired 40-acre addition to Morningside. A small, half-dried canal is all that separates the residential street from a thick wall of trees marking the start of the park area.
“Acquiring this area is very, very important because it’s adding to our crown jewel,” Demetropoulos said.
The wooded area is thick with trees, plant life and litter. There is one vein of a pathway traveling through the acreage, although even that reaches points where it becomes too dense to travel through. Pinecones cover the ground, making it impossible to see anything below. In other areas, crispy brown pine needles coat the earth like horsehair.
A cracked tub of Country Farm butter juts abandoned from the dirt. A broken sandal lies discarded on the ground, its other half nowhere to be found. An empty milk jug seems to grow from a patch of grass that has overtaken it. Soon, this will all be cleaned out.
Bundled up in a thick jacket, Nagid leads the forage with a map of the area clutched in her right hand.
“Once a week, we have people come out to clean the parks,” she said.
She said the department hopes to have the opportunity to hire more staff as the economy gets better. For now, though, she relies on a small and dedicated team to get the job done.
As part of the cleanup effort, some of the acquired areas will need to undergo prescribed fires, which are planned fires meant to manage and restore.
“We have three certified burners on staff, including myself,” Nagid said.
Demetropoulos said prescribed fires are important because they burn away the dead and provide growth for new trees and plants. She said when plants that belong in the area undergo a prescribed fire, they sprout back after about a week, and the animals in the area are able to eat the new plants.
“They’re like a haircut for the forest,” she said.
Nagid said deer, fox, raccoons, possums, and bobcats are all known to roam through Gainesville. Demetropoulos said there was even a recent report of a bear. Plenty of endangered species and plant life call these newly acquired lands home, so they fall into consideration when planning what to do with the land.
While areas like Morningside already have small trails from bikers and walkers combing through the area, connecting trails and boardwalks will be added throughout the newly acquired lands.
Large branches lie scattered across the ground, begging to be used as walking sticks. Soon, Demetropoulos said this will become possible as the parks will undergo a soft opening once the woods are thinned and accessible trails are added. She hopes this will happen soon because it is important for the community.
“It’s a benefit for our residents,” she said. “That they could have a busy work week, yet outside they have a beautiful nature park they can utilize on the weekends is fantastic.”
It is calm and serene deep in the thick of Morningside. For a moment, the birds stop their cacophony of chirps, and the wind pauses its dance through the trees. It can feel like time has stopped there. Pausing to perform a “scratch-and-sniff test,” Demetropoulos plucks a leaf from a bush and crushes it in her hand. Holding it under her nose, she lets the freshly released scent of the leaf fill the crisp air as a barn owl hoots in the distance. In that moment, there is a clear connection between nature and mankind.
Demetropoulos said this connection to the environment can be seen in the residents of Gainesville. She said the approval of the half-cent sales tax proves their dedication.
Nagid agrees that the people of Gainesville appreciate their surroundings, always taking the time to smell the roses.
“Because of the citizens of Gainesville and their feeling toward natural areas and how protective they are over nature, we have greater opportunities over other cities,” Nagid said.