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Military Driving Sandhills Conservation Success

Acquisition has continued despite slow economy

Story Highlights
  • 390 acres in Cumberland County will become part of Carvers Creek State Park
  • 543 acres in Scotland County will be added to the Sandhills Game Lands
  • Since 2001, a cooperative agreement with Fort Bragg has pumped $23 million into conservation

“Through the partnership with TNC and the military we have added somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 acres since 1999. We wouldn’t have those properties without that partnership being so strong and active." ~ Brady Beck, NC Wildlife Resources Commission

It has been a good summer for conservation in the Sandhills. At a time when a flagging economy has reduced public and private dollars for acquisition, Sandhills Project Director Ryan Elting successfully closed on two large tracts of property – 390 acres in Cumberland County that will become part of Carvers Creek State Park and 543 acres in Scotland County that will be added to the Sandhills Game Lands.

The engine that has kept Sandhills conservation going through tough times is the military. Funding provided by Fort Bragg to protect buffers around the base has been used to leverage other dollars from the state’s conservation trust funds.  Since 2001, a cooperative agreement with Fort Bragg has pumped $23 million into conservation. “When we started our cooperative agreement with Fort Bragg, we were the only game in town,” Elting explains. “Now there are 30 installations around the country – some with very dire problems to resolve – competing for those dollars. Our job is to make the argument that Fort Bragg still has issues of incompatible development, threats that could potentially impact their ability to maintain their mission.”

Conservation around the base began ten years ago, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a Jeopardy Biological Opinion, requiring the Army to recover the local population of federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.  At the time, it was expected that it would take until this year to restore that population. But, recovery actually occurred in 2005. Today, the Conservancy, the Army and other partners are building on that conservation work.

Some properties need restoration. Other properties are pretty much turnkey affairs – beautiful and healthy as is. The two newest acquisitions are examples of each.

The Cumberland County property needs restoration. “This a good opportunity for us to own the tract for a short period of time, get the necessary components back in place, get it to where it can be managed with fire. That’s the goal,” Elting says. “We’ll thin trees, plant native grass seed and longleaf pines and re-introduce controlled burns as part of our work on the site. It is amazing to see how the restoration process brings out the biological potential of a property like this and creates something more ecologically and aesthetically rich.” 

The Scotland County tract doesn’t need much work. It is an amazing, beautiful place with healthy stands of longleaf pine. It contains several ponds – the result of mining activities in the middle part of the last century. Today those ponds are filled with healthy populations of largemouth bass. On a hot summer day, Elting noted that they looked “refreshing enough to dive in.”

It also protects two and a half miles of Drowning Creek, the headwaters of the Lumber River and the source of Southern Pines drinking water. Because of its location, it is a perfect spot for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF), which was created by the North Carolina legislature to protect surface waters after several high-profile incidents in the mid-1990s.

“While we focus our projects on surface water quality, the aim is to make sure we get multiple benefits out of our projects, so that we steward and spend the state’s money the best way possible,” explains Richard Rogers, CWMTF executive director.  With this tract, CWMTF and the military are protecting drinking water – saving Southern Pines money since it is cheaper to protect drinking water at its source than treating it later. The tract also creates hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities. And, it provides a buffer between Fort Bragg and its neighbors, ensuring that the base can continue to thrive.

CWMTF dollars have often been used to leverage the Army money around Fort Bragg. Rogers says many people don’t realize that is the case. “I think we were all excited once we got through the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process with an expanded military presence in this state,” he says. “But, how we got there is lost on a lot of folks.” 

Many states lost military presence as a result of BRAC, which hurt those local economies. But, Fort Bragg grew. In early August, the Forces Command and the U.S. Army Command moved from Georgia to Fort Bragg – making that base headquarters for conventional forces, the U.S. Army Reserve, special forces and counterterrorist forces. Military officials and economic developers credit the conservation work around the base with helping to make that growth possible.

The military is a major economic driver in North Carolina.  According to the N.C. Department of Commerce, the military accounted for $23.4 billion – 7 percent – of the state’s Gross Domestic Product in 2007.  More than 416,000 people – 8 percent of the state’s work force – were employed or supported by the military. That number is expected t to grow. It is projected that by 2013, the military will account for an additional $2.9 billion of Gross Domestic Product and another 49,000 jobs. The Conservancy and other conservation partners are doing similar conservation work around the state’s other large military base, Camp Lejeune.

People who hunt or fish the newly acquired section of the Sandhills Game Lands may not fully recognize the connection between conservation and the military. The same can be said of the people who are expected to enjoy Carvers Creek State Park, when it opens in 2012.

Brady Beck certainly appreciates the connection. He is a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.  “Through the partnership with TNC and the military we have added somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 acres since 1999. We wouldn’t have those properties without that partnership being so strong and active.

This property is going to provide good hunting and fishing access,” he says. “Folks will be able to paddle as well as fish. It connects forested river buffer and other existing game lands. And, it provides habitat for a number of rare species including pine barrens tree frog,  Sandhills chub and pinewoods darter. It also provides habitat for a number of things that we don’t think of as classical Sandhills critters such as neotropical songbirds.”

Because the conservation is close to the base, military maneuvers often occur nearby, you may see paratroopers falling from the sky or the occasional boom of guns. But, Beck says last year when he was touring the area with a CWMTF representative, there was a maneuver of another kind. “While we were paddling, we had a flyover by our most famous endangered species – the red-cockaded woodpecker. That wouldn’t have happened if the area had been clear cut and turned into a loblolly pine plantation.”

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