Cobb County Government
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County opens nature to the public

By Gary A. Witte
Staff Reports

Rusty Simpson has an office with a desk, but you won’t find him there very often.

As the Natural Resources manager for the Cobb Parks, Recreation and Cultural
Affairs Department, he’s usually walking somewhere outside on the more than 2,000 acres of undeveloped and greenspace land maintained by the county.

Simpson prefers it that way. “I don’t feel so penned in,” he said. “And the view–it’s gorgeous. I don’t see walls.”

He and his five-person staff have various responsibilities, such as monitoring those acres consisting of 10 passive county parks, including the 12-mile Silver Comet Trail.

“My job is ever-changing,” Simpson said. “It’s different every day with the same theme in mind.”

Education is also a large part of his department’s mission, which encompasses classes for schoolchildren and adult assistance, such as teaching residents how to keep coyotes out of their yards.

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folks buying books
Above, Cobb County Naturalist Kim Ellis of East Cobb shows children from Due West Elementary School the skull of a beaver and a photo of one, as well as different types of animal furs, for a Sept. 21 class about how animals adaprt to their environments.
folks buying books
Cobb County Natural Resources Director Rusty Simpson walks a trail at Leone Hall Price Park, a 100-acre undeveloped area in west Cobb County. Simpson traced an unmapped trail through the woods and checked areas that need cleanup.

The Natural Resources staff usually holds three to four youth classes a week, which typically translates to more than 300 students, Simpson said. This includes public schools, private schools, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

The children are enthusiastic, but sometimes unnerved by the prospect of the great outdoors.

Recreation Specialist Kaye Wilson of Dallas said one of the common questions the children ask is if the animals in the forest are going to make a meal of them. “They think all wild animals are going to eat them,” she said, smiling.

In fact, one of the classes demonstrates how much of a threat humans can pose to wildlife, rather than the other way around.

Given a square of green turf, Wilson allows the children to set up animal habitats using miniature trees and other items.

Then it’s time for the humans to move in. With the people come houses, stores and schools, then roads and parking lots. This causes the animals to have to move elsewhere on an increasingly crowded mat.

“They see how the humans affect the animals and then the animals have to adapt,” Wilson said.

The learning aids are the remains of wildlife which have died on county property and then were preserved. One of the larger examples include a stuffed black bear that died when it wandered into traffic and was struck by a vehicle.

During a forest walk the children constantly pointed out to each other some new wonder they’ve spotted, whether it be plants, bugs or both. In another class, they get a chance to feel and see what real fur is like.

“Everything we do is hands on,” Wilson said. “They’re not just sitting at a desk.”
Simpson’s department is responsible for the recreational paths the children use during these classes. He and another staff member, Recreation Programmer John Purcell, design and build new trails. The work is an art form or a science, depending on how you look at it, Simpson said. One has to balance the need for a clear path with the need to preserve the natural environment as much as possible.

“We go around everything we can,” he said. “Try to make sure we’re not taking out anything we need to keep…It can be challenging at times.”

Instead of just cutting a swath through the wild, Simpson said one has to pay attention to the lay of the ground and how runoff will flow. He said you have to make certain the water will sheet across the path instead of running down it, otherwise erosion will tear apart the path.

Their most recent trail projects include Leone Hall Price Park, a 100-acre undeveloped area in west Cobb, and Turtleback Trail, a four-mile mountain bike path behind Pitner Road Dog Park.

On a recent visit, Simpson explored an unmapped trail through the woods of Price Park and noted areas that needed cleanup.

Then he went to the 1450-acre U.S. Corps of Engineers property in northwest Cobb to check the growth of river cane along Alatoona Creek. The U.S. Corps of Engineers is funding a replanting of the once-abundant plant to help reduce erosion and provide a natural habitat.

The property, like other recreational areas spread throughout the county, remains popular.
“You’d be surprised at the number of people who come out just to walk,” Simpson said.
Their popularity can also bring challenges. Simpson spends much of his time fielding concerns and reports filed by the public, such as erosion in the parks or nearby residents with county trees fallen on their property.

“We want to be good neighbors and we want to find a way to solve their problems,” he said.