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Cleaning Up an Urban Creek at the Blue Heron Nature Preserve

by Sarah Poletti, Conservation Research Bridge Program, Amphibian Foundation

The Blue Heron Nature Preserve is a pocket of nature hidden in the Buckhead area of metro-Atlanta. The preserve serves the community as a way to escape inside the city and stroll trails surrounded by tall trees and the soothing crackle of Mill Creek flowing beside you. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the family of deer that live there or one of the many resident turtles. Blue Heron is also home to the Amphibian Foundation, where I started as a Conservation Research Assistant in February of this year. In the midst of the pandemic, I’ve been grateful to be able to spend time getting to know this diverse little ecosystem in the middle of the city.

Initially traversing the creek, I was struck by the litter prevalence. I was unsettled by how a nature preserve could be so easily infiltrated by candy wrappers and styrofoam cups from the city streets. I even saw salamanders living in a thick layer of styrofoam fragments floating on top of the water. I wanted the preserve to be the safe green space it is intended to be and decided that I was going to try cleaning it up.

Likely months of accumulation, Mill Creek’s entry to the preserve was coated with a thick layer of styrofoam prior to any clean-ups in April.
The same spot in June after three clean-ups.

One of my opportunities in the Conservation Research Bridge Program has been to design a scientific study. I have always been interested in scientific research that contributes to solving anthropogenic environmental issues and I was looking for a way to do that at a local scale. I strive for my actions to contribute to a better environment in whatever small ways I am capable of and I wanted to incorporate community service into my research.

Volunteer crew, surveying for amphibians and reptiles after the first creek clean-up.

I’ve been studying the influx of litter into Mill Creek for four months now. With the help of fellow Amphibian Foundation volunteers and students, once a month we collect all of the litter that has accumulated in and around the creek. While we’re cleaning it up, I also count and categorize the items we find. We’re primarily finding single-use consumer and household items that were likely carried from the surrounding streets by rain. Over the course of four surveys, we have collected 11721 individual items of litter. Styrofoam and plastic make up over 90% of this, most common items being fragments, food and cigarillo wrappers, and plastic bottles.

Amphibian Foundation volunteer, Jin, sorting some of the litter.

What really sits with me is how transient trash can be if we allow it. I’m not as jarred by trash on a city sidewalk as I am seeing litter in nature. It might not seem like a big deal to drop a cigarette butt on a pavement, but that litter can be carried by the wind and the rain to degrade our diminishing greenspaces. I now see the cumulative impact that those small choices make. We can reduce our input into this litter transport system by appropriately disposing of waste in designated trash cans and keeping pickup trucks and yards clear of anything that might be carried away by the elements. On a walk or a hike, we can carry a bag to collect the litter we find. Once the pandemic simmers, I’m personally looking to join group clean-ups with organizations like Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and Georgia DNR.

Ideally, we need a long term solution to prevent the litter from accumulating at Blue Heron in the first place. But until then, I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute with others who care about our shared environment and I have seen how our clean-up efforts enhance the wellbeing of our local wildlife and create a safer space for local families to come enjoy.

About the author: Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and is in the Conservation Research Bridge Program at the Amphibian Foundation. She is currently drafting her urban creek cleanup research to be published in a scientific journal.

Science for Georgia is a 501(c)(3). We work to build a bridge between scientists and the public and advocate for the responsible use of science in public policy.

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