Flowing around the southern perimeter of the Robbinsville Middle and High School campuses, Sweetwater Creek is an ideal place for outdoor science learning, and Mainspring’s youth education program is taking advantage.
Through a partnership with Graham Revitalization Economic Action Team (GREAT) and Robbinsville High School, Mainspring is improving the quality of the streambank while teaching kids about non-native invasive plants and the harmful effect they have on aquatic habitat, birds and native plants.
“Students generally understand the idea that some species are invasive in certain areas,” says Ben Davis, Robbinsville High School science teacher. “But when they get out on the creek bank and see both the sheer amount of invasive plants and the work it takes to restore the environment to its natural state, it really drives the idea home that we should try to control our invasive species as much as possible.”
Rivercane, a native bamboo important for thousands of years to indigenous people, was growing along Sweetwater Creek, but was being invaded by Chinese privet, a very aggressive non-native plant. Since 2016, students have been pulling up Chinese privet by hand and with a lever-like tool called the Weed Wrench and replacing it with native trees and shrubs. Davis says the continuity of the project is one of the benefits. “Since we’ve been doing this for several semesters and with all science classes, some kids have followed the project for several years and can see the progress we are making.”
The restoration project includes sampling fish and catching birds to monitor their populations in and near the creek. In 2019, Mainspring will add instruction on traditional Cherokee basket making using rivercane to the curriculum.
“It makes it easier for me as a teacher to discuss ecosystems and native species when we can give examples of plants right here on campus,” Davis said. “It’s fun to observe which of my students will really throw themselves into the physical labor, because it’s not always the ones I expect.”
Funding for this program comes from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation through its Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources Program.
When Barry and Carol Gay of Blairsville, Georgia, considered selling their almost 118-acre Graham County property known as Deep Gap, they knew finding a buyer might be difficult. “We preferred that the property remain protected,” Barry says, “and knew that requirement would limit the potential interest.”
After an unsuccessful attempt at listing the property, the Gays researched the benefits of gifting the land to Mainspring. “We were pleased to learn that, in making a land donation, we could realize a desirable tax break,” Barry says. “It was a win-win for us, as the land would remain essentially protected, and we were able to adjust our direction for a long-term investment.”
In December 2017, the Gays gifted the land to Mainspring. Mainspring then placed a conservation easement on the tract that protected the forested land, which includes the headwaters of East Buffalo Creek and four rare or exemplary natural communities: Rich Cove Forest (Montane Rich Subtype), Rich Cove Forest (Boulderfield Subtype), Montane Oak-Hickory Forest (Basic Subtype), and Rich Montane Seep. Half of the property borders Nantahala National Forest.
One year later, Mainspring sold the conserved property to Stephen and Dawn Robertson of Madison County. Profits from the transaction were divided into Mainspring’s Land Protection, Operating and Stewardship Funds. Additionally, Mainspring purchased a gently used Ford F150 and a UTV for office and land management use.
“This was an incredible gift to conservation in many ways,” says Jordan Smith, Mainspring land protection manager. “We protected a special property with abundant conservation values while simultaneously increasing Mainspring’s ability to continue to conserve new lands and steward lands we’ve already protected.”
A primitive cabin was already built in the forest of Deep Gap, and the Robertsons plan to expand it by adding a few modern amenities. “We’re actually grateful the conservation protections were already in place, because we wanted to leave it as untouched as possible,” Stephen says. “We are working closely with the engineer to upgrade the cabin while keeping as many trees as we can.”
Both the Gays and Robertsons know that the natural cove and unique character of Deep Gap make it a special tract. “A property like this deserves to be protected and remain natural for future generations,” Barry says. And Stephen agrees: “It was exciting to work with Mainspring and learn about the conservation process. I’m glad it’s protected and am thankful we were able to find it.”
*If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of donating property to Mainspring, contact Jordan Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.