State and local agencies signed an historic agreement Wednesday to help the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve battle exotic and invasive plant species.
The memorandum of understanding creates a Chicopee Woods Cooperative Weed Management Area that extends beyond the boundaries of the 1,400-acre preserve.
Jock Hornor, executive director of Elachee Nature Science Center, said there is no point in trying to control aggressive plants such as kudzu within the preserve if weeds are not also kept in check on adjacent land.
"When you have cooperation among agencies in the same area, you can work together on the problem," Hornor said Wednesday at a meeting of Chicopee Woods watershed stakeholders.
Signers of the agreement included representatives from the city of Gainesville, Hall County Commission, Elachee, Chicopee Woods Area Park Commission, Hall County Soil and Water Commission, Georgia Forestry Commission and Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council.
Cynthia Taylor, natural resources manager for the preserve, said invasive species are a growing threat to the park’s ecosystem and will overwhelm native plants if something isn’t done.
"It’s a huge problem," she said. "It affects biodiversity in the preserve."
Hornor said cooperative weed management areas have been very successful out West, but the concept is new to Georgia.
"This will be the first cooperative weed management area in the southeastern United States," he said. "It could give us access to millions of dollars in federal funding."
Taylor estimated the weed-control project will cost about $500,000 over 10 years.
"For the first three or four years, we’re going to need about $200,000 for mapping, eradication and education," she said. "So far we’ve got $40,000 in grants and another $40,000 from the Chicopee Woods Area Park Commission. We’ve already begun mapping areas in the preserve where invasives are crowding out native species."
Under the agreement, all parties will help create an integrated weed management plan and will take responsibility for weed control on their own lands. They will also share technology and will work together to educate the public about the issue.
Cooperating on weed control shouldn’t be too hard, because local governments and agencies have already been working together in other ways to protect the preserve. For example, Gainesville has dredged two detention ponds on the outer edges of the property, removing 350 truckloads of dirt that were swept into the watershed by storm water.
"The nature preserve is protected in perpetuity through a conservation easement, but unfortunately we don’t own the entire watershed," Taylor said. "Even with the storm water detention projects that the city and county are doing, sediment will continue to accumulate over time."
Most of the streams on the property feed into Chicopee Lake, which has become so choked with dirt that it’s less than half its original size.
"All artificial lakes eventually fill up with silt, but with Chicopee Lake the situation was greatly accelerated by construction of the airport, industrial park, schools and I-985," said Taylor.
But there’s good news. The Georgia Department of Transportation bought right-of-way on the Chicopee property for construction of the new Interstate 985 interchange in Oakwood, and the park commission has used part of the proceeds to help Elachee dredge Chicopee Lake.
"They gave us $320,000, which was enough to remove about 8,000 cubic yards of sediment," Taylor said. "We really needed to remove about 20,000 cubic yards, so we’ll have to do it again in the future."
She said the plan is to keep the status quo, not expand the lake to its original size.
"Our goal is to maintain the footprint of the open water we currently have," she said. "The areas that have already filled in have evolved into an excellent wetlands habitat."
Elachee has an aquatic education site at the lake, where school groups study pond wildlife and use binoculars to watch for birds in the marshes.
Almost everything that happens in Chicopee Woods, including construction, can create a teaching opportunity for Elachee. Hornor said the nature center is in the process of surfacing the unpaved "turnaround" parking lot used by school buses.
"We’re constructing a pervious parking lot with a rain garden, which will also be used as an educational tool," he said.
Paving the 25,000-square-foot space would only create more storm water runoff. Instead, a special surface will be laid beneath gravel so that it will be strong enough to withstand heavy traffic yet porous enough to allow rainwater to percolate through.
Hornor said the project will be completed a little at a time, as funding becomes available.
"The whole thing is going to cost us about $200,000, which is about four times what it would cost if we just used asphalt. But we will have an educational display explaining why doing it this way is better for the environment."