DALTON, Ga. (AP) — Dalton State College ornithologist David DesRochers said the college began studying animal and plant populations in the wetland at Lakeshore Park eight years ago.
At the time, the wetland at the west end of the current track and artificial-turf, multi-use field were littered with trash and construction debris. Little care was given to the native plant and animal species living there.
"When we started doing the surveys in 2011, it was when the wetland was at its most degraded point," DesRochers said. "The grass was cut right up to the edge of the water and there was not a lot of habitat and we were surprised at the bird species that were coming in and using it even then. It takes a few years for a habitat like this to rebound."
In the years since the study began, the park's natural ecology has undergone a revitalization with the help of city of Dalton money and the efforts from a six-year partnership of the college and students and teachers at nearby Brookwood School. The funding to help with the efforts to preserve the area came from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) that passed in 2015. Part of that SPLOST included $2.2 million for projects around the park.
Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock said the money spent on the wetland put the "special" in the SPLOST.
"We are only borrowing this Earth while we are here," Mock said. "We need to preserve it for future generations. It (the wetland) is a real important aspect of the city. It involves community. It brings the college kids here and it brings the Brookwood elementary kids here and gives them a place for significant research and training for possible careers. It is just a great facility."
The addition of a walking trail, pavilion and bridge across the wetland have enhanced the project, which included removing invasive plants and planting replacement vegetation that had been destroyed.
Students from the college were recently completing another of their regular surveys of the area's turtle population. Biology professor John Lugthart said surveys of the area have included vegetation, birds, amphibians, plants, fish and invertebrates.
"We began this study and several other studies just to get an idea of what was living here in the natural areas of Lakeshore Park and the wetland and the lake," Lugthart said. "One of the reasons why we began the surveys was in the hope this revitalization would really occur. In population studies it is great to have that before-and-after data. We have continued with surveys to see what has happened since then with the improvements (to the area)."
Six turtle species have been catalogued in the wetland area, with more than 1,000 turtles over the years. Lugthart said some turtles were found and then discovered again years later.
"It is a healthy turtle population," Lugthart said. "The revitalization involved draining down the wetlands and the lake, and we were very interested in seeing what that might do to the turtle population. What we found was all six species persisted through that traumatic disturbance. Some of the species seem to be just as populated as before. Some of them, such as the painted turtles, don't seem to have made as strong of a recovery yet. I think it is just a matter of time for their numbers to come up."
Brookwood students have also taken advantage of the "outdoor classroom" nature of the wetland and park. Fourth-graders participate in their own turtle surveys, and elements of the park are incorporated throughout all grade levels.
"With this revitalization, they have made it so easy to bring our kids over here for an outdoor classroom," said Annette Rojas, a fourth-grade teacher at the school. "It has really given us a place to come and do the research and use the real tools and be scientists. They love it and are so excited."
Rojas said she has seen the impact with her students. She said some students who struggled in the classroom or showed no real enthusiasm for science blossomed when they experienced "hands-on" learning.
"There are a lot of kids who (have gone through the program and) have said they weren't interested in anything outdoors and they get out here and they find out that they love it," Rojas said. "We have seen a lot of success, especially with special-needs students. They might not excel in a classroom setting, but out here they are more on an equal footing and can be as successful as everyone else."
Lugthart said he has seen more people visiting the park over the years, enjoying the natural surroundings without disturbing them and helping with the preservation. DesRochers said the spot is a treasure for the community.
"This habitat here is just a real gem," he said. "With the growth of cities and towns, habitats like this often get squeezed out and diminished over time. Visually, it is quite appealing. After the restoration, we've had a lot of vegetation coming out which is really beautiful. Even though you have a super-small wetland here in the heart of the Carpet Capital of the World, we are still connected to different parts of the global ecology. It is a really cool place and provides a lot of opportunities with a lot of value to the community."
Information from: The Daily Citizen, http://www.daltondailycitizen.com