Community Voices: Nature area provides suburban refuge

A lot of community discussion in Fayette County these days focuses on what is being built, or soon will be. From condos to movie studios, there’s a lot of development raising the county’s profile but leveling a lot of woods.

So if you want to visit a portion of Fayette that won’t be subject to that, have I got the place for you.

It’s called The Ridge Nature Area, and it officially opened on Aug. 13. The Ridge is a City of Fayetteville public greenspace project that was created in partnership with the nonprofit Southern Conservation Trust, which manages five other community preserves in Fayette.

Occupying 308 acres between Whitewater Creek and Gingercake Creek, The Ridge is accessed from a residential cul-de-sac at the southern end of Burch Road. Just past the pretty entrance gate, several narrow trails split off into beautiful woods, weaving their way past both meadows and the creeks. Some trails are for pedestrians only, while 4.5 miles of multi-use trails are open to mountain bikers as well. It’s mostly level ground, although there are some slight inclines as you go deeper into the property.

The average person wouldn’t know this from looking at it, but this is not your typical preserve-of-the-pristine. From the 1820s to the 1960s, more than 200 acres of the property was clear-cut and farmed. Mother Nature has slowly reclaimed the land, although hundreds of volunteers and several Scout troops worked hard to remove invasive plants such as privet and to restore native species. Several local companies have provided in-kind donations of equipment, materials and labor.

In an area just off the Wildwood trail, the Piedmont Meadow Restoration project is where annual and perennial wildflowers are being replanted to improve biodiversity. Small orange flags pop like poppies from the grass to note where milkweed and swamp mallow are taking root.

A primitive camping area has already been established, and a paddling trail was recently inaugurated with a flotilla of rubber ducks. Still to come are a nature center, restrooms, an outdoor classroom, a gazebo and other amenities as funding permits. An ongoing study of Eastern box turtles, 800 of whom have been fitted with radio transmitters to track their movement and behavior, is being done in conjunction with Clayton State University.

I didn’t see any Transformer-like turtles on my walk, but interesting wildlife is all around. A dark, furry blur – perhaps a fox? – dashed across the trail ahead of me, and grasshoppers and butterflies fluttered across the meadow. The buzzing of cicadas overhead was occasionally interrupted by the tapping of a woodpecker. At the base of a tree, I spotted a bright blue-green caterpillar with spectacular black and orange spikes; it was a Hickory Horned Devil, which will soon turn into an orange-striped Royal Walnut (or Regal) moth.

Many communities struggle with finding a balance between development and preservation. Fayette County, being largely rural for so long, is no different. One person’s progress is another person’s loss. Establishing parks and nature areas like The Ridge is one way to help bridge that gap.