Wesleyan professor continues to nurture nature walk

BUCKHANNON — Battling the invasive species that threaten Buckhannon’s Nature Park and Learning Trail takes time, care and the physical ability to both pull weeds by hand and wield clippers and even a machete for the hardier species.

It’s an ongoing process that is now in its sixth year. 

Dr. Katharine Gregg is overseeing the process with some help along the way from volunteers.  Most recently, she has been helped by two Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints missionaries on a weekly basis for the last six weeks.

Gregg met the missionary sisters, Sister Merrifield and a previous sister who has moved to a new assignment during an encounter when they knocked on Gregg’s door.

“It was a  serendipitous type of visit  that they asked me for service opportunities,” Gregg said. 

In fact, Gregg had just the project.

“I have been asking for volunteers to help with this nature park for several years now and I’ve been getting a lot of volunteers but this is the most regular help I have ever had.”

So, every Tuesday morning for the last six weeks, Sister Merrifield and now Sister Nichols have been volunteering their time to help Gregg manage the trails.

“We are weeding out exotic species like privet, Japanese knotweed, Japanese stilt grass, rosa multiflora and Morrow’s honeysuckle,” Gregg said. “Those are the ones that are really trying to take over the park.

“In addition to that, we are removing a lot of tree babies, saplings of trees that are coming up in places where we don’t want them,” she said. “For example, here is a huge box elder and we are happy to have this one here, but we don’t need lots and lots more. So, when we see box elder babies, we have been pulling them out and silver maple babies and sycamore babies because we want to give the native vegetation a chance to flourish.”

Since first envisioned in 2009, the nature park and learning trail has been a cooperative venture between West Virginia Wesleyan College and the City of Buckhannon. Major funding came from a grant from the Recreational Trails Program, Division of Highways under the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

“The city asked me as the botanist at Wesleyan to help them design the trails,” Gregg said. “We designed the riverwalk extension that went as far as it could go and then some handicapped accessible biways so people could enjoy more of the park.”

The nature trail and park is located close to the Buckhannon river behind the lumber company.

In July 2011, the hard work began with the removal of a massive understory of privet that had chocked out much of the native flora — and still tries to take over if volunteers don’t keep it cut back.

The grant paid for the purchase of over 170 native shrubs, trees and vines that were purchased from a nursery going out of business and planted in fall 2012 and spring 2013. It also paid for paving of part of the trail that is included in the river walk extension.

Gregg said Jerry Arnold, now director of public works for the City of Buckhannon, and Rob Barbor, city horticulturist, were instrumental in the project.

She has also received help from her husband, Carl Coulson, neighbors and various college volunteers fromm the resident advisors to the sustainability group under WE LEAD.

The trail was formally dedicated in 2014. 

Laura Price, a 2014 WVWC graduate, researched and wrote the text for many of the signs. 

“We have about 47 signs out now,” Gregg said. 

“We are highlighting the native species and the exotic species,” she said. “We want to educate people about what they don’t want to plant. Each sign has information about plant, the distribution like where in the United States or Canada it is located, its size, habitat and description of the plant. 

“Then the last paragraph is all about the uses that man has made out of the plant,” she said. “It could be medicine, it could be lumber, it could be food, whatever.”

This spring, Gregg extended the educational signs to elsewhere around the river walk trail to point out some of the other plants.

“I hope to do some more in the future,” she said.

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