Mark Johns has lived in Cary for over 25 years and has been employed by the Town of Cary since 1991, Mark has a BS in wildlife biology and MLS in life sciences from NC State. He is a certified environmental educator and a certified wildlife biologist. For the last 32 years he has worked at the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary and recently retired as its Operations and Program Supervisor-Environmental (Stevens Nature Center).
Interviewing Mark is Joseph Ragone with the Regency Park Partnership, who has visited practically all Cary parks and many Wake County parks and some state parks as well. One of his favorite hikes is along the Swift Creek Greenway from Regency Parkway to Kildaire Road, and then up Kildaire to the entrance to Hemlock Bluffs Preserve where he can immersive himself in the natural wonders that the Preserve offers.
Mark. It is so good to catch up with you again. We last talked back in 2017. At that time, you had already been at Hemlock Bluffs for almost 25 years. And now, on the verge of your upcoming retirement, you have worked at Hemlock Bluffs for 32 years in one job or another. A most remarkable record!
At that time we discussed the primary missions of the Preserve – to provide environmental education for visitors of all ages, year-round, and to also focus on natural resource management on the 140 acre nature preserve. Is there anything you wish to add?
I want to emphasize that Hemlock Bluffs is not intended as an active recreation site. Its primary mission continues as the protection and management of its natural resources, and education about these resources.
And when we talked about natural resource management, you mentioned things like erosion control, elimination of invasive plants and animals, prescribed burns, hazard tree management and wildlife surveys. I know that prescribed burns still occur annually, but what about issues like invasive plants and animals, and erosion control. How are you doing on these fronts?
We are always working on these issues, and continue with weekly or monthly efforts for their control, depending on the issue.
And we still do the burns annually too.
Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is named for the Eastern Hemlocks that occur on site along most of the bluffs, and there were 235 of these in 2017. Is that figure about the same now?
Good question. We are most pleased to announce that in the last 6 years or so, we have been able to “grow” our very special Eastern Hemlocks forest by 20 trees, and the new total is now 255.
Mark, the rules and regulations that we discussed back in 2017 prohibit things like going off-trail, disturbing plants or animals, unleashed dogs, or any method of travel other than by foot. Any new regulations or issues?
No, are regulations are basically the same as they were back then. They worked well then to protect the Preserve and these same rules serve us well today.
I know that Hemlock Bluffs has a volunteer contingent that helps on public workdays and that you hold major volunteer events as well. And of course the “Friends of Hemlock Bluffs” help out as well. Are these resources sufficient or would you like additional support? How does one become a volunteer?
Unfortunately we do not have the necessary staff resources to work with individual volunteers at this time. So the best way to volunteer with us is to join us on one or more of our official monthly volunteer workdays,
You can also make a donation to the Friends of Hemlock Bluffs, an all-volunteer nonprofit that is dedicated to the mission of our Preserve. Visit their website here and you can make your donation by simply clicking on the floating SUPPORT US button that appears on all its web pages.
When you first went to Hemlock Bluffs, what was it like then?
That would have been back in 1977. There were no marked trails or parking areas, no facilities of any kind , nothing at all. It was the property of the National Park Service at that time. People just roamed around on the site and greatly damaged its natural resources. We are proud to say that we have come a long way since that time, thanks in large part to our dedicated staff and volunteers, and also to the Town of Cary.
When you look back on your long career at Hemlock Bluffs, what would you say were your major accomplishments?
Considering how far we have come since those early years, I would say that our protection of all the natural resources that the Preserve offers was our single largest accomplishment. Next would be the training of staff, and of course our facilities, and the continual education of the general public on the value of preserving our natural resources and our open green spaces.
Mark, what do see as the new or continuing major challenges at Hemlock Bluffs as it now moves forward without your support and participation?
While we are always pleased to serve all who come to the Preserve to learn, we have actually had too much public visitation since the pandemic started, as more and more of us are visiting our parks and preserves during these trying times. This has actually negatively impacted our available staff and facility resources and it is costing much more in staff time and effort to fix damage caused by the tremendous increase in visitors.
We also don’t offer as many programs since the pandemic started. We were actually shut down for more than a year from doing any programs. We do far less programs now and offer fewer programs but hope to gradually build things back up over time as we re-hire part time staff. This year so far has been a return to closer to normal activities for us. We continue to evolve as many other places and programs in parks and recreation do in Cary since 2020.
With all of the rapid growth around us as new companies come in and more homes and apartment buildings are being built, this certainly appears to create more and more pressure on our natural resources and our wildlife. How important are smaller parks and preserves in protecting these natural resources and giving us opportunities to commune with nature and can anything be done to identify and protect more areas like these as well?
With all of these pressures, we need to make our rules and regulations as strict as possible to insure the protection of what we have going forward. Unfortunately this may include limiting the number of visitors at many of our parks, preserves, and open-spaces. And we need to continue to try to educate the public on the importance of protecting and sustaining our natural plant and animal communities.
Do you plan to occasionally visit the Preserve after retirement and how will you feel as a visitor rather than as Preserve staff?
Time will tell, but I can say without hesitation that as long as I live in this area, I will be around the Preserve at Hemlock Bluffs.
Anything else you want to tell us before you move on?
I want to say that while I have worked at hemlock bluffs for 32 years, the true guiding force for everything that has happened here was Laura White. She provided the big picture vision for this site and developed the part and full time staff while working here. The exhibits, the children’s nature trail, our programming history, many building and site improvements, and our management and interpretive plans came from her.
When she retired in 2014, I became a caretaker for the overall vision Laura was responsible for. Her involvement continues as a key member of the Friends of Hemlock Bluffs to this day. Quite frankly I learned about everything I know about trying to supervise hemlock bluffs from her.
Mark, what a wonderful tribute to Laura White, and we are sure she is most deserving of your kind and deserving words of praise!
The Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is located at 2616 Kildaire Farm Road in Cary and is only a few minutes from the neighborhoods of Regency Park. The Preserve is open from 9 a.m. until sunset 7 days a week, 365 days per year. The nature center is currently open 10-4 M-F and 10-2 Saturday.
INITIAL INTERVIEW CONDUCTED WITH MARK JOHNS IN 2017
When this interview was conducted in 2017, Mark Johns was the interim nature center supervisor at the Stevens Nature Center at Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary. Mark had worked for the Town of Cary at Hemlock Bluffs since 1991 and took over that position when Laura White, the nature center supervisor of 22 years, recently retired. He was, and still is, a certified wildlife biologist and certified environmental educator.
Mark, you have been at the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve for almost 25 years now. In your own words what has been the mission and primary purpose of Hemlock Bluffs?
Of course we also focus on natural resource management on the 140 acre nature preserve including erosion control, elimination of invasive plants and animals, prescribed burns, hazard tree management and wildlife surveys.
Can you tell us about the many diverse programs do you offer each year?
The primary mission of the Stevens Nature Center and the nature preserve has always been to provide environmental education for visitors of all ages, year-round. We hope that sharing local wildlife and nature facts with visitors and program participants will inspire people to become better environmental stewards in their own backyards and communities
Yes. We typically offer about 500-600 fee based programs annually for between 5,000 and 6,000 participants. These programs focus on nature and the natural history of the site. And our programs are for all ages, from preschoolers to senior citizens and cover such topics as bird watching, plant identification, insect ecology, snake natural history and stream explorations.
And there are also fee based programs as well, correct?
Yes. we present nature programs for a small fee for groups of 15 or less. Our staff conducts all of these programs and most of our people are part-time employees that work 20 hours or less each week. Anyone who wants to learn more about our programs and events can call 919-387-5980 for more information or visit www.townofcary.org and search for Hemlock Bluffs.
And what is it about the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve that makes it so unique in our area?
A very good question. Well, first you should know that we are named for the eastern hemlocks that occur on site along most of our bluffs. The hemlocks in our preserve are all naturally occurring trees and some of these are quite old and large, and we have a total of 235 hemlocks here. To find other hemlocks in our state that aren't planted and are naturally occurring, you would need to travel a couple hundred miles to the west.
We also have longleaf pines on the site, as well as other less common plants that thrive in the Piedmont of North Carolina. And we have a diverse bird and salamander population as well, which you can learn more about by participating in one of our nature programs.
Finally, from on ecological perspective the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is considered to be one of the most unique sites in the central piedmont and because of this it was made a state nature preserve in 1983.
Well it is easy to see why the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is such a special place, not only for you but for its visitors as well. Can you tell us about any unusual rules or regulations that visitors need to be aware of?
There are many rules for this site that are quite different than other typical parks that one might visit. First of all, visitors must stay on marked trails at all times and the collection or destruction of plants or animals is strictly prohibited. Dogs have to be leashed at all times, and hunting, fishing, or trapping is not allowed, nor any bikes, skateboards, roller-blades, or horses on any trails. We also discourage picnicking and there are no picnic facilities at the nature preserve. Simply put, our focus for use is nature study, quiet reflection, and passive recreation.
Mark, it seems that visitors to the preserve should consider hiking some of its trails to get a real feel for its bluffs and its hemlock forest. What can you tell us about your trails?
The Swift Creek Trail is about .8 miles long and involves climbing steps because of changing elevations! Our Chestnut Oak Trail is longer at about 1.2 miles total, but the changes in elevation are not as extreme and there are no steps on this trail.
There are also overlooks that offer scenic vistas at several spots along the trails and the Swift Creek Trail also has an extensive boardwalk system to protect the moist soils in this area of the preserve.
How much is the local community involved with the nature preserve and supporting its goals and mission?
Well we have a total of more than 3 miles of trails here, including two basic loop trails.
We have a strong volunteer contingent that helps on public workdays each month. We also hold major volunteer events on national trails day each June and on national public lands day each September. We use thousands of volunteers each year to help mulch our trails, repair boardwalks, create brush piles for wildlife and help collect litter from the stream.
The “Friend of Hemlock Bluffs” is our non-profit support organization and is run completely by volunteers. They help to fundraise to support our mission of environmental education and natural resource management, and also provide logistical support for many volunteer workdays.
They recently obtained a $9,000 grant from the Jandy Ammons Foundation to help with development of a children's nature trail.
REI has also been a major community partner for several years providing thousands of dollars in grants for trail improvements.
You obviously are quite proud of being part of the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve and helping it fulfill its mission. Can you tell us what parts of your job you like the most?
I love doing natural resource management like the prescribed burns and invasive plant control work. I also really enjoy working with the volunteers that help mulch our trails year-round. As a result of their work, we feel we have some of the best maintained trails in the area. I also do all of the nature programming for adults and teaching others about nature has always been one of my favorite things to do here.
Mark, thank you so much for taking the time from your busy schedule and responsibilities for this most informative interview. I hope our readers have enjoyed it and now will take the time to visit you as well.