Tour of the Fred Stanback Jr. Ecological Preserve

by | Jun 21, 2023 | Greenspace

Tour of the Fred Stanback Jr. Ecological Preserve with Joshua Cool, Ecological Preserve Keeper at Catawba College

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” –John Muir

Joshua Cool and I met one June morning as the sun splayed across the 6 a.m. sky. Streaks of pink and orange and iridescent purple are visible through the tops of trees.

Joshua asked if I’d like spray and netting as we moved past pavement to the soft sigh of soil, but I declined. “These few weeks are deer fly season,” he explained. “They are sight-based, and really seem to like dark clothes.”

I laughed, “Oh, great! I wore the worst thing,” I shook my head, snuggling deeper into my black hoodie.

“They really love navy blue,” he offered. He described a hat that he had fashioned with a long peacock feather that bobbed along as he walked, the blue dot at the tip of the feather drawing the deer flies up and away from his skin.


So much of what Joshua does each day is that way. His attunement to nuance, to the way life unfolds across the land, in the sky and water, is astounding.

Joshua describes the place, and the importance of attention when visiting. “The Preserve encompasses 189 acres of wetland environment inside Salisbury city limits. The broad purpose of the Preserve is to forever protect the present ‘natural character, forest and wetland resources and scenic qualities.’ This is distinct from a park in that the primary goal is to allow flora and fauna to flourish here. To this end, all visitors are asked to engage only in “passive” recreational activities, such as walking and birdwatching, to minimize disruption of wildlife. Fishing, hunting, any wheeled recreational conveyance (bikes, UTVs, etc), collection of plants and animals, camping, and other such behaviors disrupt the lives of wildlife and as such are prohibited.

“Dogs must be kept on leashes, as it is far too easy for an unleashed dog to disturb wildlife. I often use as an example the nesting habits of turtles. Turtle mothers are very discerning as to where, when, and how their nests are constructed. A female turtle can store sperm internally for later use, up to seven years past mating in some cases. The sex of a baby turtle is determined in the nest as the egg develops, dependent on temperature. A turtle will make and construct a nest in a specific location at a specific depth with a certain amount of backfill to determine the eventual ratio of male: to female offspring. An errant dog can easily upend all this preparation and care with a few digs into a nest, without their owners having even noticed. Dog owners should also keep in mind that the Preserve is home to animals that may harbor parasites that could be ingested by an unleashed dog. My two dogs love the Preserve and for their safety and that of the wildlife they are leashed at all times.”

Eastern Box Turtle by Joshua Cool

Eastern box turtle (male)—Photo by Joshua Cool

Joshua solves problems with thoughtfulness, resourcefulness, and innovation, considering what do I have? And what disrupts the least?

Joshua explained that he and a few work-study students clear areas of invasive species by hand—without chemicals or heavy machinery. The students don’t take down trees for safety reasons; Joshua handles those until they’re felled, limbed, and bucked.

Examples of items they are removing: Bradford Pears, “Chinese packing grass”, Multiflora/Rambling rose, Wisteria. Clearing areas of these make possible the kinds of flora that create homes to diverse and interesting species — ones that have been here all along — ones that should be thriving.

Joshua Cool standing in front of wisteria.

Joshua with Wisteria—Photo by Sara Austin Bailey

Joshua pointed out a bamboo indigenous to this land, on a bank of Grants Creek. He and his team are clearing underbrush from “river cane” that has sprouted up and has the potential to spread out and attract species to rest and roost.

Another important example of Joshua’s commitment to creative and careful problem-solving is in trail maintenance. He creates French drains from fallen tree limbs to prevent water from pooling atop trails.

A french drain onto a trail.

French Drain—Photo by Sara Austin Bailey

He cooperates with the beavers to prevent them from building their dams across the trail bridges. Joshua and his team use wire cylinders “called ‘beaver bafflers’ to protect critical water flow junctures by disincentivizing damming directly at the sound of flowing water, which is the trigger for a beaver to begin damming.”

A wire fence contraption called a beaver baffler.

Beaver Baffler—Photo by Joshua Cool

I asked Joshua his wish to see, create, or have others experience.

“My primary wish is to have the Preserve be as beneficial to wildlife as possible. I also hope that by walking through the Preserve visitors will gain more appreciation for the natural world and all its denizens. Time spent in nature helps people break through the false separation we have imposed upon our lives, with “Nature” being some outside force to our humanity, a thing to be visited and left behind. We are blessed to have an area in city limits devoted to a living space for our relatives with wings, scales and fur. I hope those that visit from outside the community push for similar spaces in their own communities. I’d like the Fred Stanback Jr. Ecological Preserve to serve as inspiration and example for the creation of a similar spaces alongside humans across the world.”

Joshua invites us to visit!

“The Preserve is open to the public, and we welcome visitors to enjoy it respectfully, on foot and with pets leashed. Event planning is ongoing. Currently we have two walks planned scheduled for the 19th of September at noon https://www.rowancountync.gov/Calendar.aspx?EID=6495, and one on the 19th at 6 p.m.

https://www.rowancountync.gov/Calendar.aspx?EID=6496, no sign-up required.

We are continuing to improve our event outreach. I’d like to invite everyone to follow Catawba College’s Facebook page and Instagram (@CatawbaCollege) for event announcements.”

First-time visitors can find their way with confidence. “The trails can seem confusing at first, but the layout is quite simple once you get the hang of it,” Joshua says. “The straightest trail begins at the entrance near Horizons Unlimited and continues until it joins a trail running alongside Grant’s Creek. This trail is typically accessed behind the parking lot that is behind the Peeler Crystal Lounge and beside the Center for The Environment (2300 W. Innes St., Salisbury, NC 28144). There will be another access point directly in front of the Center for The Environment after ongoing renovations have finished. The second trail leads out to the covered bridge on the Salisbury Greenway on our northeast corner. Other trails loop onto the Pipeline Trail. Folks can use ‘blazing’, patches of paint on trees, to differentiate trails.” The trails are open from sunrise until sunset each day, and a map is here: https://catawba.edu/preserve/map/.

Joshua encourages mindfulness as you visit the Preserve. “Being fully present and aware of the moment in time and place you are experiencing will drastically increase one’s enjoyment of the Preserve. Slowing down and making note of all you can see and hear while in the Preserve will often lead to noticing things you may otherwise have walked right past. Perhaps a yellow crowned night heron is on a nearby branch observing you, still and silent. A rat snake could be winding its way up a tree towards a bird’s nest. That gold glint in the sedge grass could be sunlight or a watchful fox eye. All these things can go easily unnoticed if you are distracted or inattentive.”

I concur. Breathe deeply, move slowly. Notice what’s around you. And give a nod of gratitude to those who make it all possible.


Catawba College has long been a leader in environmental education. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the College established the Catawba College Ecological Preserve, renamed the Fred Stanback Jr. Ecological Preserve in 2012.

About The Author

Sara Austin Bailey

Sara grew up in Rowan County, in Woodleaf. She has spent much of her career in public K12 education as a teacher, math curriculum designer, and leadership coach for principals. Sara has recently begun expanding into other work, including non-profit project management, and writing. She feels honored to write for Your Rowan because she gets to experience something familiar with new and heightened awareness. And—in this—she has the opportunity to discover for the first time something that she thought she knew inside and out. She cherishes this process. She knows it is how effective learning and lasting connections occur. Find her at: https://www.SaraAustinBailey.com