Mark Johns is the interim nature center supervisor at the Stevens Nature Center at Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary. Mark has worked for the Town of Cary at Hemlock Bluffs since 1991 and took over his current position when Laura White, the nature center supervisor of 22 years, recently retired. He 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?
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. 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?
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. We also 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 park that one might visit. First of all, visitors must stay on marked trails at all times and the collection or destruction of plant 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?
Well we have a total of more than 3 miles of trails here, including two basic loop 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 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?
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.
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 Stevens Nature Center is open 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. on Sunday, and is closed on all Town of Cary holidays. Call 919-387-5980 for more information.