• One of the signs made by David Kelley shows the wear of nature, while a trail circling the classroom is barely visible through the overgrowth that has accumulated at the Marble Springs Outdoor Educational Area.
    One of the signs made by David Kelley shows the wear of nature, while a trail circling the classroom is barely visible through the overgrowth that has accumulated at the Marble Springs Outdoor Educational Area.

SCOUTING AROUND: Master Gardeners reviving Marble Springs trail

   The heart of the Marble community was the elementary school, and the Marble Springs Outdoor Education Area just beside it was a community treasure. Unfortunately, a lack of care-taking in recent years has caused the trails to become overgrown with foliage, decks to rot and signage to be damaged by nature.
    When Debbie Hogan, a former member of the Cherokee County Board of Education and lifelong resident of Marble, needed 40 volunteer hours for the Master Gardener program, she thought reviving the trail would be the perfect project.
    “It’s an awesome piece to have in this community,” Hogan said. “The whole idea was to make this accessible to the children.”
    She got Nola Cooper and Pat Lambert involved in the project, too. They started work on the trail in May, and have been on site at least one day every week this summer cleaning and beautifying. They recently installed a new sign at the entrance on Airport Road, planted some roses and hostas and added mulch.
    “We’re just busy trying to clean it up,” Hogan said.
    They also got in contact with Mary Jo Deck, one of the original planners for the project to create area more than 10 years ago.
    She explained that former state Rep. Roger West donated 4.2 acres, while the school donated an additional 5 acres, of land bordered by Airport Road, the former elementary school campus that is now home to The Oaks Academy, Hyatt Creek and U.S. 74. He asked that the property serve the children, and that some sort of attention be given in memory of his sister, Margaret Gayle West.
    “A good deal of the thinking was how can we embed the outdoors in children’s development,” Deck said. She had a background in early childhood and environmental education, and was involved as the Region A Partnership and Marble Springs Outdoor Education Area steering committee member.
    Other key members of the group working on the original project were Col. Howard Lovingood, then-sheriff Keith Lovin and members of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition. They got N.C. State University involved by creating the design of the property through its Natural Learning Initiative in the College of Design.
    “This property has multiple special things,” Deck said.
    They first revived the springs, which is what gave the community its original name of Marble Springs. Trails were created to weave visitors to Hyatt Creek and to the river cane, which Deck said was important to the Cherokee.
    A learning center with two picnic tables near the river cane was provided through a grant from the Cherokee Preservation Society, and an agreement was made with them to sustainably harvest the river cane on the site.  Along the trails, signs were installed to share information about property. During summer 2011, David Kelley lead Troop 401 in placing plant identification signs he created for his Eagle Scout project.
    The physical labor for much of the original project, as well as the maintenance, came from prisoners provided by Lovin, Deck said.
    “They were our core workers,” Deck said. “Over the years it went by the wayside, and there hasn’t been much participation in maintaining it.”
    Hogan said when she got to it, there was a lot of overgrowth on the trails, and the trail width is small enough that all the work has to be done by hand. They have made some progress with cleaning, and plan to replace Kelley’s damaged signs with new signs that include QR codes for more information.
    They also have had done work on raised garden beds and plan to build more beds so students can start a fall garden. Hogan said they hope to add a greenhouse at the back of the school by next spring.
    Deck sees this part of the plan as a great way to introduce a farm-to-table education program to students, which will result in students eating healthier by knowing how to garden and cook.
    Principal Libby Gibson was not aware of the trail when The Oaks Academy moved into the school building last summer, but she and students did visit the trail a few times during the school year. She envisions a large-scale plan for the school’s use of the property, but wants to work one small step at a time.
    “The trail is going to be a wonderful addition to the school,” Gibson said.
    Students in the school’s shop class already are tasked in rebuilding the deteriorating decks and bridges. Gibson would love for her students to use the outdoor classroom and would like to incorporate what the property offers in life science classes.
    She also sees plenty of service learning opportunities for her students. Hogan’s goal is even bigger.
    “I want students from all schools to be able to come and see something, have some connection with the environment,” Hogan said. “I want the community to have a place to come, and walk or fish.”
    Hogan said she wants the school to remain a central part of the community, even though it’s no longer an elementary school. In fact, there’s a proposal to change the name of The Oaks Academy to Marble Springs Academy to make it a part of the community.
    Cooper is working on getting the community involved with sharing their stories and photos about the park, springs or the Marble community not only for the project’s new website, but also for possible education sessions to be presented at the park.
    “The springs is such a rich and natural resource,” Deck said. “There’s lots of stories to be told.”
    Cooper and Hogan also are working on getting the area named a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
    They have no long-term plans for maintenance of the outdoor education area, but pointed out that one of the requirements to stay in the Master Gardener program is to complete 20 volunteer hours each year.
    To share information, visit marblespringsoutdoors.org and fill out the form. For updates on the renovations, follow facebook.com/MSOEA.
    Samantha Sinclair is the Scouting Around columnist for the Cherokee Scout. You can reach her by email, scoutingaround@cherokeescout.com; fax, 837-5832; or by leaving a message in the office at 837-5122.