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Teaching nature's ways

By Ed Brock

About nine and a half years ago Carol Lambert saw some construction going on near some wetlands on Freeman Road where she had often conducted field trips for the Atlanta Audubon Society.

She grew concerned, knowing there were some rare bird species in the area, so she called the Clayton County Water Authority to find out what was going on.

When they told her they were building the Melvin Newman Wetlands Center, she grew intrigued.

"I asked them if they already had conservationist," Lambert said.

Nearly a decade later, 54-year-old Lambert is now the senior conservationist at the center. The center receives around 20,000 visitors a year and around 160,000 people from all around the world have come to visit since it was opened. About 150 groups come through a year, primarily from Clayton County's schools but also Boy Scout troops, seniors' groups and others.

On Thursday a group came out from Flint River Middle School to walk the half-mile circular trail through the woods and marshes on the center's 32 acres.

Pointing out caterpillars and skinks, she tells the group to keep their eyes peeled for one of the center's alligator snapping turtles.

"When you have this much water you have a wide variety of species," Lambert told them. "More kinds of animals, more kinds of plants."

The tour was informative for the students' teachers as well.

Denise Taylor particularly liked learning about a plant Lambert pointed out as a natural cure for poison ivy.

"I didn't know there was a plant that could do that," Taylor said.

A native of Maryland, Lambert now lives in Tucker and has been in Georgia for 20 years. She has a degree in environmental planning and while she was still in Maryland she worked with that state's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives on environmental legislation.

Her interest in the environment also comes from her native state.

"Having grown up on Chesapeake Bay wetlands have always been of interest to me," Lambert said.

Before coming to work at the wetlands center Lambert was working as a park ranger for the Army Corps of Engineers at Lake Lanier. She also volunteered for Georgia Conservancy as well as the Audubon Society giving the bird watching tours that led to her discovery of her current job.

She admits that bird watching is a bit of an obsession for her and her husband. This week she plans to fly to Kansas, in the middle of tornado season, because there happen to be some interesting species there right now.

"Anything that affects the birds affects us," Lambert said. "Birds are a good barometer of environmental health."

Keeping track of declines in some bird species and the bird population in general can be used to track the effects of hazards such as pesticides and West Nile virus.

"If the environment is not healthy for birds, which are an important part of the food chain, then there's a breakdown somewhere," Lambert said.

But birds fascinate her for more esthetic reasons as well. She loves the fact that some bird species migrate thousands of miles each year and still manage to find the exact same rock on which to build their nest every time.

"I know people who can't find their way around Jonesboro," Lambert said.

In her surveys of the 4,000 acres belonging to the county's water authority, Lambert has identified 252 species of birds.

"For a small inland county that is a remarkable number of birds," Lambert said.

Lambert prefers her birds wild and free, and she opposes the importation of tropical bird species as pets.

"Most of them die in transport," Lambert said. "It's always unwise to take any animal out of its natural environment."

She much prefers her current job to the more law enforcement oriented job of a ranger, Lambert said, and she certainly prefers to be outside on the trail.

"That trail is my other office. I do my best thinking out there," Lambert said.

And she wants to share that trail with as many people as she can, especially children and teens who these days seem to spend most of their time inside. They may come out for the occasional soccer game, but they don't get to come out looking for bugs and really experiencing the wild life.

"That's something I hope a place like this gives them a chance to do," Lambert said. "You have to have these natural areas, and you have to let people have access to them."

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