Cornelia Barr, executive director of Gateway Nature Preserve, along Salem Creek in the preserve.

Cornelia Barr’s path to environmental activism has been as fluid and unpredictable as Salem Creek.

“I think if someone who knew me 15 years ago discovered I was doing this, they’d be surprised,” says Barr with a laugh.

In 2005, Barr and her West Salem and Washington Park neighbors learned of a developer who wanted to build student housing on roughly eight acres of land off North Broad Street. The desire to preserve this green space led the neighbors to lobby against its rezoning — and to the eventual purchase of all 19 acres in 2015 for about $400,000. This was done with help from the City of Winston-Salem, The Winston-Salem Foundation, and other community organizations.

And so began Barr’s environmental activism journey.

Today, the land is now Gateway Nature Preserve, which is an all-volunteer nonprofit with 12 board members who work to create crushed concrete trails, educational stations, pollinator gardens, and more along the Salem Greenway. In addition to insects, macroinvertebrates, birds, squirrels, raccoons, and groundhogs, the preserve is home to deer and even foxes. As part of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, the preserve focuses on being an urban wildlife habitat and educating the next generation about forestry practices, Barr says.

“We would like to do things that aren’t being done elsewhere,” she says. “Once sites are developed with outdoor classrooms, we want to expand environmental education programming, which is sorely needed in this area.”

As a state-certified environmental educator, Barr emphasizes the benefits of green space for ecological resilience. Without it, there is increased erosion, turbidity in the water, fewer trees to mitigate heat, and fewer habitats for pollinators and other wildlife.

“There’s a lot of focus on reducing energy use, but not enough on the benefits of green space or what nature can accomplish if we get out of the way,” she says. “Nature speaks in a soft voice, and it is up to us to amplify that voice so we can understand and support it.”

Before retiring, Barr was a freelance writer and editor for academic publishers, and in the 1990s she oversaw publications for Old Salem Museum & Gardens. This experience has helped her write successful project-based grants to fund aspects of the nature preserve’s 2017 Strategic Plan, such as the pollinator garden that’s being prepared for planting this fall.

The preserve already supports education. Professors from UNC School of the Arts and Winston-Salem State University visit the preserve with their classes, and the Boys & Girls Club brings students to experience and learn about nature. In addition, Barr says, other conservation groups have rallied around the nature preserve and have been very supportive of its mission.

“It’s a visible place to be and to see how you can make a difference on the local level,” she says. “We’re saving the world 19 acres at a time.”

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