A peaceful forest setting mixed with sounds of birds and running water provides a feeling of solitude one would expect in a remote wilderness. But this area is anything but remote. Nestled in the shadow of Atlanta’s metropolitan skyline resides a green jewel so secluded and tucked away that many pass the main entrance without even noticing.
Part of the larger Atlanta Children’s Forest Network, Cascade Springs Nature Preserve provides 135 acres of isolated urban forest inside Atlanta’s perimeter. The Children’s Forest is instrumental in connecting underserved communities with conservation education and career paths. Yet for six young adults from inner-city Atlanta, these hidden woodlands in the heart of the city represent more than a forested landscape; they symbolize life-altering experiences.
Sitting on a rock next to a small waterfall, Nikki Miller began to tell Agriculture Department Deputy Under Secretary Butch Blazer her story. “This program changed my life,” she said while leading Blazer, along with U.S. Forest Service (USFS) employees and partners, along the tightly manicured trail and pointing to recent successes in conservation.
“I have a sense of accomplishment,” added participant MJ Hendrix, eager to share his story. “I’m proud of the work I’ve done, and I want my family to see my work… I want to tell my mom about what I’ve done.”
But life hasn’t been as kind to many who call the nearby neighborhoods home. Adjacent to this urban forest on Atlanta’s southwest side are several underserved and impoverished communities. Most residents have spent little time in the forest and even fewer are experienced conservationists.
That’s where nonprofit organizations such as the Greening Youth Foundation come in. Working with a diverse group of underrepresented young people, Greening Youth provides paid internships through the Atlanta Youth Corps program, providing skills and practical work experience while delivering needed services for the community.
Teaming with several partners, including USFS and the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Greening Youth sends participants to an urban conservation training institute. The training is a six-week outdoor camp specializing in hands-on learning in conservation. When finished, the newly minted environmental stewards apply their skillsets in an urban forest setting right in their own back yard.
Eager to put their skills to the test, these young adults worked tirelessly to improve Cascade Springs through trail maintenance, stream restoration and invasive species removal. Having successfully completed phase one of Cascade Springs, the Greening Youth Foundation recently received additional Forest Service funding to begin phase two, which includes six weeks of installing signage and improving existing trails.
Two crew members will serve as rangers, inviting community members to visit the forest while providing education and interpretative information. These rangers will also visit local schools to promote youth programs such as Every Kid in a Park.
Impressed with their stories and dedication to learning a range of new skills, Blazer asked the Greening Youth folks about their partners and encouraged them to seek out additional conservation advocates. Blazer said, “It’s a powerful thing to meet individuals whose lives are positively impacted by projects like this.”
“I travel all over the country—I wish we had more programs like this for our young people.” Blazer shared with the group. “We can all learn a lot from the Greening Youth Foundation and the Atlanta Children’s Forest Network.”