The Story Behind the Walnut Creek Wetland Center

Celebrating 10 years, this hard-won nature sanctuary is just minutes from downtown. Here’s how it came to be.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Justin Kase Conder

This May 18, the grounds outside of the Norman and Betty Camp Education Center will be alive with messy play: squealing toddlers making mud pies, grade schoolers scaling an extra-messy obstacle course, bigger kids mixing dirt and water to construct an old-fashioned cob house. It’s all part of the Mud Day celebration at the Walnut Creek Wetland Park in Southeast Raleigh, where the community is invited to get dirty while learning about nature, too. (Perhaps the best part—for kids and parents alike—is that the Fire Department will use their hoses to rinse off muddy kids before they leave.) “Playing with mud is primal,” says Wetland Park director Stacie Haywood. “It’s like a magnet, we don’t have to tell kids how to play with it!”

Click here to see Exploris second-graders enjoying the Wetland Park.

On most days, the Wetland Park is peaceful, a natural refuge just minutes from downtown. Visitors can borrow rubber boots and nets to explore in a nearby stream, or lift plywood boards to reveal worms, centipedes and the occasional snake. You can wander through it on the greenway, passing from paved trails to wooden platforms and back again. Especially at dawn or dusk, you may see one of the 29 native species that have been spotted nearby, including beavers, deer, foxes, coyote and mink. “The Wetland Park can fill you with a wonderful sense of peace right here in the middle of the city, in the middle of the busy life,” says Sonja McKay, an educator who uses the park. “You don’t have to search to connect with nature, you just need to show up and nature will find you.”

The Walnut Creek Wetland Park turns 10 this September, but its origins stretch much further. How this area went from a natural treasure to dumping ground and back again reflects the strength of people willing to fight for what they know to be good—for their neighbors, their city and the earth.

Exploris students at the Walnut Creek Wetland Park.

The backstory
The wetlands were lauded in the 1890s by the Brimley brothers, the English scientists who spearheaded the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. For them, the Walnut Creek area was a great repository of wildlife. “They’d bicycle down there with their butterfly nets and find all kinds of rare birds, amphibians and insects,” says architect Frank Harmon.

As the story goes, the brothers knew that the best way to find animals was to ask the local children, and it was the young son of an African-American farmer who pointed them towards the wetlands, and even showed them where to find the nest of a Black Rail, an elusive marsh bird.

The land to the south, Rochester Heights, was the first planned subdivision for black families in Raleigh. It was built on a flood plain, and when Walnut Creek and the wetlands filled with water—and especially as developments further north displaced water upstream—these houses would flood. By the 1990s, the wetlands were a neglected swath of undeveloped land; the city even dumped sewage into the creek. “For more than five decades it was a dumping ground,” says Father Jemonde Taylor of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church. A 1998 article in The News & Observer described an “eyesore” where passersby witnessed everything from baby cribs and rusted washing machines to industrial janitorial brushes lurking in the muck, where residents and businesses alike treated the wetlands as a landfill. “There were major issues with environmental degradation,” says Anne S. Franklin, who at the time was the president of the Wake County Botanical Society.

And yet, in the vernal pools, nature prevailed. “Even then, when I waded out into the wetland and did some dipping, I got macroinvertebrates and spider babies and salamander eggs,” says Eve Vitaglione, who at the time worked in the education department of the Museum of Natural Sciences. “It’s such a rich area.”

A 1998 photo of stream cleanups from The News & Observer archives, by Cindy Skop.

Cleaning up the creek
What’s now a 60-acre park wasn’t the original plan; the earliest efforts to salvage the wetland had a much humbler scope. St. Ambrose parishioner Lillian Currin, a teacher at Fuller Elementary, told Father Arthur Calloway that she was tired of her home flooding—what could he do? Walnut Creek is literally in the church’s backyard, and since part of the flooding was a result of water displaced by waste, Calloway, along with other parishioners, began using their own efforts (and operating budget) to remove trash from the area through organized stream cleanups.

“As we pursued how to keep the creek from being clogged up, we started taking pride in our surroundings and keeping it clean,” says Carolyn Winters, a parishioner who was involved in the beginning. In the earliest days, the cleanups would pull 150 tires out of the creek at once. “Those were not coming from individuals, these were companies using the wetlands as a dump.”

Dr. Norman Camp, another parishioner, was asked to lead the efforts. A science educator and college administrator who had also worked for the government in various capacities, Camp, along with his wife, Betty, and son, Norman Camp IV, would rally volunteers to walk the creek and pull out debris. “Nothing happened without Betty—she’d bring the volunteers and buckets of food,” says Bill Flournoy, an early participant (who’s  widely considered the father of the Raleigh greenway system). “I don’t know how she baked all those biscuits.”

The cleanups gained momentum. Two sister churches, Trinity Episcopal Church in Fuquay-Varina and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cary, joined the effort, forming a committee called the Episcopalians for Environmental Justice. The group later changed its name to Partners for Environmental Justice (PEJ), to reflect secular groups that joined the effort as well.

In 1998, the group received a $16,000 grant from the Triangle Community Foundation to fund cleanup efforts and further grant applications. The end goal was to propose an education park and bog garden on a 25-acre stretch of the wetlands. There were also initiatives to alleviate flooding in nearby Rochester Heights, since a preserved wetland could help absorb runoff from paved areas. At the time, the wetland had various owners, including the church, city of Raleigh, federal government and private owners.

With his background in education and government, Dr. Norman Camp trained his efforts on raising awareness about the cleanups. “Dr. Camp was a genius about being on boards and commissions and making connections,” says Vitaglione. “He was an energetic, positive person, and after all the area was owned by the city, not by us,” says Winters. 

A 2003 photo from The News & Observer showng Norman Camp, left, and Ed Milligan removing an old gas tank from the water at the confluence of Little Rock Creek and Walnut Creek in the Urban Wetland Educational Park near St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Raleigh.

Building on the momentum
One person Camp connected with was Robin Moore, a professor at N.C. State’s Natural Learning Initiative and at the time a fellow member of the Parks Board. “The church was trying to put together a grant, but they needed some front end work done,” says Moore. He enlisted his landscape and urban planning grad students to conduct site research and a door-to-door survey to learn the Rochester Heights community’s priorities, along with researching the behavior of the wetland and the area’s history of flooding. “We made this very conceptual master plan to get an image of how a preserved wetland could connect to the community, but also opened the discussion of the equity of parks distribution in Southeast Raleigh—it was not being adequately served,” says Moore. The plan they outlined included a park with preserved areas and a nature center for programming.

By mid-2000, the Partners for Environmental Justice would propose a project with a $10 million price tag that would cover 150 acres of “wooded swampy area” as a push to offer Southeast Raleigh access to green space and alleviate flooding. The study done by Moore’s students enhanced their case, and through Camp’s efforts and the support of then-mayor Charles Meeker, the proposal was added to the 2003 park bond (albeit at a smaller scale). “The city made it possible. They listened! It took a lot of arm-twisting and begging, but they deserve credit,” says Winters.

Breaking ground on the Wetland Center in 2009. Photo courtesy Betty Camp.

“When they granted the park bond, everyone was so happy!” says Betty Camp. Moore quietly lobbied for the city to hire Harmon, an architect with a reputation for environmentally-conscious design. Once commissioned, Harmon designed a building to anchor the park that would “feel part of the place and make that place better,” he says. “We tried to make it as unobtrusive as possible.” The building is raised on stilts to allow water—and snakes and bugs—to flow freely. The education center was built to capture rainwater and the paved areas are porous so water will be absorbed where it falls. The space was built with materials that could be recycled or regrown whenever possible, and oriented to enjoy the porch summer or winter, with natural ventilation in every room. “As much as possible it’s open to the air. The biggest learning areas are the breezeway and the porch along the south side, which came from the idea of being immersed in nature,” Harmon says.

With the Wetland Center built, people slowly began to come: students from nearby schools Carnage Middle School, Fuller Elementary and Exploris, nature-lovers and bikers discovering it along the greenway. Before the education center was even constructed, educator Frank McKay and his Exploris eighth graders created a field guide to the wetland park as a service learning project, with illustrations of animals and plants that can found there—a guide that’s still available for perusing today.

The Wetland Center’s first director, Ross Andrews, was part of the original cleanups and a vocal champion for the park. “Ross and Dr. Camp were the tip of the spear, the primary agents of change and collaboration,” says Amin Davis, who started participating in the stream cleanups as a grad student in the 90s. Andrews brought enthusiasm, expertise and heart to the Wetland Center, making it a friendly space for newcomers and repeat visitors alike. “Anytime we had an idea or wanted to connect kids to the park, Ross helped,” says Frank McKay. “He was great at mentoring, he taught us lessons and let us go out with tools like boots and field guides.”

Along with Randy Senzig, Andrews started the Neighborhood Ecology Corps, a program designed to engage neighborhood middle-schoolers with the environment. The program uses grants from the City and other foundations to get kids working on service projects like stream cleanups and removing invasive species—even, just recently, installing tubes under a beaver dam to keep the creek flowing as it should. “The NEC bridges the gap between curious elementary schoolers and disengaged high schoolers, and it’s a way for them to give back to the community and bring home knowledge about ecology, too” says Senzig. Franklin agrees: “These kids are leading the way, and they’re engaging the parents as well—this is life-changing, transformational work.”

Davis became a PEJ member after Andrews passed away in 2013. “Dr. Camp asked me to join the board, and it was one of the highest honors of my whole life,” he says. Davis, who now works with the N.C. Division of Water Resources, spearheaded a documentary about the park to educate others about the effort it took to get it made (find it here). “We wanted the broader community to understand the story behind Rochester Heights, the PEJ and the Wetlands Center,” he says.

The park today
These days, the Wetland Park is a resource for anyone who knows about it—a rest stop along the Greenway trails, a place for kids to muck around on the weekends or for a few hours after school. “It’s free and usually open—in barely 10 minutes, you could be in a rocking chair looking at green,” says Franklin. There’s a closet full of boots and nets that you can borrow to explore along the creek’s edge. And unlike some of the other “heavily programmed” parks, Franklin says that this one offers a different kind of experience. “It’s nice to think of all the things we’d like to have—places to eat, sports facilities—but the connection to nature and green is still the most appealing,” she says.

“I love working here,” says Frances Carmichael, a recreation leader who’s been working at the Education Center since 2009. “I grew up in the area and this building is definitely unique, I love watching kids get interested in being outside, it’s like they’re in another dimension.” The Education Center offers an indoor portion with craft and education material, a few critters (at press time: two snakes and Mr. T, the box turtle) and a digital photo display of some of the animals caught on camera in the wetlands. There’s also classroom space available for schools or parties, activity backpacks kids can borrow and field guides for budding naturalists. (And yes, Frank McKay’s former students do come back to make sure their version is still on the shelf.) “More and more people are discovering us,” says Carmichael. “I have a yard and some bushes and birds, but this place is wild—and it’s on the bus line for crying out loud!” says Vitaglione.

This past September, the wetland center was renamed the Norman and Betty Camp Education Center in honor of their efforts. Sadly, Dr. Camp had passed away just weeks before. “Norm was the spiritual parent of the park and a great friend,” says Harmon. “Dr. Camp was a driving force, he was like the glue that kept the committee together,” agrees Winters. Camp received numerous awards and recognition for his efforts with the Wetland Park, including the Green Hero Award from the City of Raleigh.

To this day, the stream cleanups that started the movement still happen twice a year. A group of staff and volunteers, sometimes more than 100 at a time from N.C. State, the city’s teen outreach programs, environmental groups and more, gather to pick litter from the mud. “We’ve found interesting things—lots of tires, old TVs, appliances, toys,” says Carmichael. She emphasizes that a lot of it is not from this area, but further upstream. “The creek brings a lot of stuff, or people drop trash along the greenways,” she says. Throughout the Education Center, signs and reading materials teach children and adults alike how to better care for nature. “I remind the teens, this center is yours and you have to keep it clean as you grow up,” says Betty Camp.

“My hope is that our community will develop a deeper connection to nature by spending time at Walnut Creek and hold this connection in their hearts wherever they go,” says Sonja McKay. “A sense of wonder grows into stewardship, and, if we do our job right as educators and parents, these children will grow into empowered young people who will advocate for our natural world.”

Current members of the Partners for Environmental Justice in from of The Norman and Betty Camp Education Center.

Looking to the future
The story of the Walnut Creek Wetland Park is ongoing. PEJ members worry that it’s underfunded and underutilized, especially by the surrounding community. Improvements to the park were included in last year’s park master plan, and the presentation of an updated design to the Parks, Recreation and Greenway Advisory Board will happen in mid-May. If all goes as planned, construction of the next phase will begin in 2020.

Taylor got to know Dr. Camp when he started at St. Ambrose over six years ago. “I remember donning trash bags to pick up garbage along the creek, and when we stopped at the wetland center to get water, Dr. Camp told us the history of it,” says Taylor. “I was impressed by how one person and one church could make such a difference in a community.” Taylor now sits on the advisory board looking at plans for the park, and while improvements are slow going, he appreciates the deliberateness. “It takes time to galvanize people, universities, and the government, but as a community member, I feel like the Rochester Heights and Biltmore Hills residents are being heard,” he says. One big improvement that’s included in the current plan: Adding better access to the wetlands from the south, so that those neighborhoods can get straight to the Education Center without walking on busy State Street or looping around it on the greenway. “It’s important that there be a southern corridor that connects this historically black neighborhood to the wetland center, through nature,” says Taylor. The plan also includes new play spaces and an elevated viewing area.

Beyond bringing the neighborhood to the park, the PEJ is looking at the bigger picture, too: Davis emphasizes that the park is a part of the discussion of equitable redevelopment in the area as demographics change. “We want to make sure the master plan serves the community and minimizes displacement as well,” he says. He emphasizes that everything is connected: flooding, trash and concerns about invasive plants are all intrinsically linked to socioeconomics, and talks about solutions necessarily extend beyond the city limits, as developments 25 or more miles out contribute to the flooding in the Walnut Creek area. Taylor has noticed a difference even in the last few years as development upstream offsets water than flows toward Rochester Heights.  “We’ll see a few inches of rainfall at RDU, and we’ll have to cancel church because State Street and Garner Road are flooded,” he says. New organizations have joined the efforts, too: N.C. State’s Water Resources Research Institute, led by Christy Perrin and Louie Rivers, has used their resources for outreach and surveys through Rochester Heights and Biltmore Hills to learn how best to create a facility that benefits nature and the community. “We’re not advocates like the PEJ, but we can get grants and pass along funds more easily than a nonprofit can,” says Perrin. “It’s been more than 20 years since Norm had the idea of getting something going,” says Harmon. “And the work will continue for another 20 years.” The PEJ have been keeping an eye on the creek restoration that will come out of Dix Park, looking for takeaways to manage flooding and allow the wetlands to function as they’re meant to. “We’re hoping each project will inform each other,” says Franklin. With Camp and Andrews gone, the PEJ is also in a transition as it finds new leaders in its efforts. “They were visionary leaders, they were so uniquely skilled and gifted,” says Davis. “We hope to find new members and volunteers who can infuse the board with that same level of energy and passion.”

“We’re going to continue the fight because Dr. Camp helped us get to this point and want to keep it up in his memory,” says Winters. “People want to know how a small church group can make this, and we—we just did it! We started by trying to fix a problem and it morphed into something bigger than we are.”

“Growing up with access to nature affections your overall connection to nature—we need it more than we ever have,” says Franklin. Frank McKay agrees: “As an educator and a citizen, the wetland park opened my eyes to the value of our urban natural area—as this area develops, are we aware of this incredible resource that we all own? How are we engaging kids to be stewards of this resource?”

Eve Vitaglione holding salamander eggs in 2019.

Nature prevails
Vitaglione has a reputation for bringing specimens to the PEJ board meetings (when I visited, she had a spotted salamander in tow). A few years ago, Camp returned the favor, bringing her some choice roadkill: a mink. Through DNA testing, they discovered it was a direct descendant of a stuffed mink at the NCMNS that the Brimley brothers had collected more than 100 years ago. Vitaglione playfully named the specimen Norma in Camp’s honor. Next time you visit the Education Center, look for Norma in Haywood’s office.