Cove Branch is a small stream in Macon County that flows out of the forests, fields, and small homesteads into the Cullasaja River, a tributary of the Little Tennessee River. Just before the stream joins the river, it passes along the border of two public schools, Mountain View Intermediate and Macon Middle School, each of which serves over 650 students.
Once Mountain View Intermediate School was completed in 2009, a group of teachers and community members saw potential in the stream and surrounding property as an outdoor classroom for science lessons and other educational opportunities.
In 2011, a group of Mountain View Intermediate School teachers and administrators, along with the Macon Soil and Water Conservation District, Macon County School System, Coweeta Long-Term Ecological Research Program, Macon County Commissioners, and members of the community secured funding to build a covered pavilion adjacent to Cove Branch.
The structure was completed in 2012 and provided space for roughly 50 students and teachers to hold class outside and began funding to build a covered pavilion adjacent to Cove Branch. The funding for this project was granted with the understanding that the stream channel and the adjacent buffer would be utilized as a schoolyard laboratory and classroom.
One of the limitations of the property and barriers to educational use was the state of the stream channel. School construction, seasonal flooding from the Cullasaja River, and additional overland flow from new parking areas, playgrounds, and rooftops, all worked to create a deeply incised channel. Classes that attempted to use the stream for educational purposes were limited in their access due to the stream level lying 3-5 feet below the surrounding flood plain and bank. The next phase in creating an accessible, ecologically diverse, educational outdoor classroom was to restore the stream channel.
Again, teachers and administrators partnered with the Macon County Soil and Water Conservation District to secure Clean Water Trust Fund grants to restore the stream channel, provide access to the creek, and create diverse ecological habitats. Plans were created, funds were secured, but the project was postponed due to permits that were pulled and plans that were made for construction on a turning lane adjacent to the project. It took 3 years before the turning lane was completed and in that time, the funding for the project was allocated elsewhere.
Land, and streams, will recover in time and that is what we witnessed at the Cove Branch Outdoor Classroom. Native trees such as Silky Dogwood, River Alder, and Sycamore started to grow along the stream channel with river cane, blackberry, and golden rod providing food and shelter for birds and insects, carpeted the floodplain. Classes learned about insect life cycles, participated in bird inventories, and studies seeds dispersal. The 5th grade students used the space for their Muddy Sneakers expeditions and Middle School classes looked at tracks and scats of wildlife that utilized the stream corridor. Plans for the restoration were put on hold because the property appeared to be slowly restoring itself.
In April of 2018, due to pressure from some in the community, it was decided by some to bush hog the site because of the “unkempt” appearance and possible safety issues. There was an outcry by teachers, students and several from the community for mowing down the vegetation up to the stream’s edge. It was clear that substantial restoration of the space, with educational opportunities for not only students but the public was necessary if the space was truly going to be utilized as an outdoor classroom.