New pavilion at Alabama’s Turkey Creek Nature Preserve expands education options

New pavilion at Alabama’s Turkey Creek Nature Preserve expands education options
A new pavilion is being built at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve. (contributed)

Turkey Creek in north Jefferson County is home to not only one, but three endangered species of fish, including one found nowhere else on the planet.

Meanwhile, the nature preserve just north of Birmingham that bears the same name is drawing ever-larger crowds who come to enjoy the creek’s pristine waters, the preserve’s hiking and biking trails and the popular swimming hole that stays refreshingly cool on even the hottest summer days.

New pavilion coming to Turkey Creek from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Protecting the preserve’s delicate and important habitat while accommodating people who want to enjoy its natural beauty is a delicate balance. So is finding ways to cover the ongoing costs of maintaining the preserve.

A new classroom pavilion under construction at the 466-acre Turkey Creek Nature Preserve will hopefully provide a revenue source sustaining the preserve while also offering an eco-friendly amenity to further the preserve’s education mission. A recent grant under the public-private Five Star program will support the project in a way that protects the preserve – and the rare creatures that inhabit it.

“The new pavilion – we are calling it an Alabama forest classroom,” said Roald Hazelhoff, director of the nonprofit Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College, which has been managing Turkey Creek Nature Preserve for more than a decade.

“The pavilion will allow us to educate more people about why this place is so special – and so deserving of ongoing protection and conservation,” Hazelhoff said. “And the Five Star grant will help us ensure the pavilion not only enhances the experience of people coming here, but that the project doesn’t adversely affect what we are trying to protect.”

The preserve, near Pinson, opened in 2009 following a community effort to protect the area. For decades, the creek and its natural waterfall was a party spot for locals. Later on, Jefferson County considered building a new jail at the site, which sparked community protest and efforts to save the nature area. Local activists proposed that the land be purchased by the state’s Forever Wild Land Trust, as other organizations, including the nonprofit Freshwater Land Trust and the Southern Environmental Center joined the effort.

The preserve protects one of the most biologically diverse habitats in the region, with the creek supporting three tiny, federally endangered fish species: The Vermillion Darter, Watercress Darter and Rush Darter. The Vermillion Darter is found only at Turkey Creek.

The vermilion darter has been found only in Jefferson County’s Turkey Creek. (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

In addition, the preserve is home to a protected species of turtle; two protected species of bats; and the rare eared coneflower.

Alabama Power and its parent, Southern Company, are partners in the Five Star program, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Five Star grants support projects that help protect and improve urban and coastal waterway habitats, and the animals and plants that rely on them.

Construction is underway on the multipurpose pavilion, which will accommodate up to 120 people. The project required clearing roughly 2 acres at the site, which will include an entrance and parking for people with disabilities. The Five Star grant will offset the environmental impacts of the project by helping pay for plantings of native trees and shrubs, installation of a rainwater harvesting system, and the creation of a 0.3-mile “Return of the Natives” trail. The trail will feature native plants and interpretative signage, and connect the pavilion to an existing outdoor amphitheater on the banks of Turkey Creek.

The Southern Environmental Center previously partnered with Five Star at the nature preserve to install permeable parking and a bioswale at the entrance to Turkey Creek Falls, located adjacent to the popular swimming hole. The permeable parking and bioswale help slow and filter rainwater from the road and parking area before it reaches the creek. The previous Five Star grant also paid for the removal of about 9 acres of invasive plants – part of a project to improve habitat for native bats.

In addition to being able to accommodate up to 120 students for educational programs, the new pavilion will be an event space. Proceeds from rentals will bolster the nature preserve’s finances.

As part of the pavilion project, another bioswale – essentially a natural area designed to retain and filter rainwater – will be constructed, while the new rainwater harvesting system will gather runoff from the pavilion’s roof in a 1,400-gallon cistern. The captured water will be reused at the pavilion and supply a new drip-irrigation system for native plants.

The pavilion project is expected to be completed by year’s end.

Like many outdoor parks and greenspaces, Turkey Creek Nature Preserve experienced a surge in visitors at the onset of the pandemic, forcing new restrictions at the site. As cooler autumn weather sets in, safety precautions remain in place for visitors. And while it is free to visit the preserve, donations to the Southern Environmental Center are encouraged to help pay for upkeep, security and other expenses.

To learn more about Turkey Creek Nature Preserve and to support its continued operation, visit https://turkeycreeknp.com/.

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