Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Preserving NC Lands~
N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources

Public-Private Partnership Secures Tract in High-Growth Area

RALEIGH -- More than 2,600 acres in Buncombe and Madison counties will be permanently protected from development through a public-private partnership comprised of two conservation trusts, area residents and the state of North Carolina.

The N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program contributed $9.2 million to purchase the tract, known as Sandymush, in late December from Progress Energy Carolinas Inc. EEP collaborated with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and conservation philanthropists Fred and Alice Stanback, who donated $1 million to SAHC for the purchase.

The property is less than 20 miles from downtown Asheville in Leicester Township, where population increased by 37 percent from 1990 to 2000, significantly higher than the statewide rate of 21 percent. The tract, located west of the French Broad River at the Madison-Buncombe County line, “is a very large piece of land near a rapidly developing area,” said SAHC Lands Program Director David Ray. “We're preserving and restoring the creeks that flow through the property and immediately into the French Broad River.”

EEP is an initiative of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the N.C. Department of Transportation that funds the restoration of wetlands and streams, as well as the permanent preservation of high-quality streams and wetlands in partnership with willing landowners. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also sponsors the program, which is housed under NCDENR.

The program utilizes federal and state highway funds allocated by the state Board of Transportation to offset unavoidable environmental damage caused by transportation-infrastructure improvements. By preserving the Sandymush tract, North Carolina will earn mitigation credits for highway projects in the western region of the state.

"As the Asheville area continues to grow, it is vital that our region preserve natural areas like Sandymush for the benefit of future generations," said Gordon Myers, an Asheville businessman and the Board of Transportation member representing Buncombe and Madison counties. "When diverse partners such as Progress Energy and the N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program work together, great things can happen."

“The Sandymush preservation project is another example of the department’s commitment to improving quality of life and economic growth,” said Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett. “We are pleased to be part of such an important acquisition.”

Since its founding in July 2003, EEP and its partners have preserved more than 27,000 acres, 98 miles of streams and 4,900 acres of wetlands. The initiative also has earmarked an additional 11,800 acres, about 112 miles of streams and 3,600 acres of wetlands in pending acquisitions. EEP partners with the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and a network of 22 land trusts across the state to identify the highest-quality sites for preservation.

“The partnership between EEP and the land trusts is benefiting North Carolinians as a whole through new parkland and wildlife areas, and also works to the advantage of both individual landowners and their communities," said EEP Director Bill Gilmore. "Preserving natural areas across the state contributes to North Carolina’s quality of life, and we’re proud to be working as partners in this initiative.”

Progress Energy owned the Sandymush tract for about 30 years and leased portions to area farmers. Over the past five years, the company has given more than $2.6 million to support conservation and environmental organizations in the state. In 2004, the company received the Corporate Conservation Partner of the Year Award from the N.C. Land Trust Council, a coalition of 23 local and regional land trusts.

“It is critical that North Carolinians work together to preserve the state’s natural resources for future generations,” said Robert Sipes, vice president of Progress Energy’s Western Region. “Selling the Sandymush property is a win-win for Progress Energy, the state of North Carolina and the environmental community, as well as the residents of Western North Carolina.”

Working with Equinox Environmental Consultation and Design of Asheville and Buck Engineering of Charlotte, SAHC studied the property and applied to EEP for funding for the project. The land has significant biological, scenic and recreational value, and contains 33 miles of streams.

The tract contains Sandymush and Turkey Creek gorges, habitat for many unique species such as piratebush. The shrub is a federal species of concern and can only be found in a handful of sites in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

The N.C. Natural Heritage Program previously identified three natural heritage areas on the property – one with regional significance and two with state significance. Sites are designated as natural heritage areas if they have unique natural communities and rare, threatened or endangered species.

The protected property is expected to be managed by a state agency for compatible recreational uses. Past land uses will necessitate streambank restoration on a portion of the property. Some of the upland habitats may be restored to native grasslands and managed for quail, meadowlarks, golden-winged warblers and other species that favor open or brushy areas. Enhancement projects, such as eradicating invasive exotic species, will also be part of the management plan.

SAHC will continue to focus its efforts on the headwaters of Sandymush Creek and Turkey Creek, where the organization already has helped to protect 1,200 acres and is working to safeguard 1,000 more. SAHC is a volunteer-based non-profit organization that works with individuals and local communities to conserve the clean water, unique plant and animal habitat and scenic beauty of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

In the last three decades, the conservancy and its 1,500 members have protected more than 15,000 acres in the Highlands of Roan and 9,000 acres in the surrounding mountains, including key sites adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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