Margaret Fields spends a lot of time making maps. As the chapter’s GIS guru, that’s a big part of her job. Sometimes it is just rote – input the data, create the map. But in October as she was updating the Chapter’s latest acquisitions, it struck her just how important those purchases were and how they were all the result of long-term planning. She sent out an email to the whole Chapter: “Some great land purchases have been coming to fruition over the past few months. Tracts I’ve been hearing about for decades got protected.
The Chapter protected 4,671 acres this year. Each of those properties is vital to our work whether it is protecting and restoring longleaf pine, preserving Roanoke River flood plain or acquiring rare mountain wetlands. Most of those deals were a long time in coming.
Take Sparkleberry Landing. “The first time I was on the Black River was in the summer of 1987. We had permission to take out at Sparkleberry Landing. It was beautiful,” remembers Hervey McIver. “Of course that work was elevated after it was discovered that the oldest trees east of the Mississippi were there.”
The Conservancy has protected more than 14,000 acres on the Black River in Bladen County home to bald cypress that sprouted in the Roman era. The newest tract, named for the sparkleberries (Vaccinium arboreum) that grow here, is particularly attractive because it includes a little bit of everything – old growth swamp forest with ancient cypress and nice uplands that can be restored to longleaf pine forest.
McIver had also long eyed a 966-acre tract in nearby Brunswick County. This year, after more than a decade of talks with its owners, the Conservancy acquired the property, which is located near Orton Plantation. “This land was owned by the Sprunt family whose ancestors started the plantation in the 1700s. That corner of Brunswick County is just chock full of rare and endemic species,” McIver explains. Carnivorous Venus flytraps are found there. It is likely that it is also home to venomous coral snakes, gopher frogs, and other cool denizens.
Orton is also valuable for its longleaf pine stands. This year the Conservancy continued its efforts to acquire longleaf forest and land that can be restored to longleaf forest. Much of that work took place around Fort Bragg in the North Carolina Sandhills. The military funds those acquisitions because it helps them protect federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, and it also ensures that development doesn’t encroach on the world’s largest military training facility. Jeff Marcus has worked in the area for 15 years – first as a biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and now as the director of the Conservancy’s longleaf restoration work. “When I first started work, a lot of the organizations were working independently. Now we are seeing the value in partnership,” he says. That partnership – identifying areas where longleaf exist or would like to live and acquiring those areas is paying off today for the woodpeckers, which pretty much make their homes exclusively in living longleaf pines.
This year the Conservancy acquired 256 acres in the area. "We're building corridors for the birds to move around and find new habitat areas and mates. The more we can connect these conservation areas, the better for the birds and other animals," Marcus explains.
Marcus is also pleased with the diversity of landowners who worked with the Conservancy to protect their lands – including farmers looking after working lands, hunters protecting their favorite hunting spot, and tong-time landowners who wanted to see their legacy of land mangament maintained. "The trust that the Conservancy has built up in the community over the years is helping landowners to entrust us with protecting their land," says Marcus.
The North Carolina Chapter was the incubator for military-funded conservation. The work, which began at Fort Bragg almost two decades ago, continues today across the country. And it is expanding from the Army to other branches of the military including Air Force, which is funding conservation to protect its bombing range in Dare County. Although not as well-known as Fort Bragg, the bombing range is the backyard training ground for crews from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. Navy pilots also use the property. This year the Air Force funded two large Conservancy projects on the Roanoke and Alligator rivers.
One of these is the 739-acre Rice Island tract at the mouth of the Alligator River. "the owners approached us decades ago, but we've never been able to put the transaction together. They even volunteered to sell it to us well below market price," Conservation Resources Director Fred Annand explains. "But it wasn't until we discovered that the Air Force was willing to purchase it, that we could put the deal together."
The island lies on the bombing range flight path, which the military is eager to keep dark. "It is also a beautiful spot. It has great potential for a camping platform – the last place you could paddle camp to before you launch out into the Albemarle Sound," says Annand. It is one of the last remaining tracts of undisturbed flood plain in the Roanoke Basin. The Conservancy has protected 95,000 acres of Roanoke River flood plain. The importance of this conservation was illustrated in October. As Hurricane Matthew dumped rain on northeast North Carolina this fall, this floodplain served a vital role absorbing and holding flood waters.
The 2,226-acre Alligator River acquisition in Tyrrell County is an important piece of the conservation puzzle in the area. "This property is totally surrounded by publicly owned lands, and eventually we will transfer it to the state to become a part of the Preyer Buckridge Coastal Preserve," Annand explains.
The importance of an acquisition can't be measured by its size. Across the state in Ashe County, the Conservancy protected a 73-acre tract in the Bluff Valley Wetlands at the base of its Bluff Mountain Preserve. "These are important because they support a whole suite of plants and animals that you don't find on the higher slopes," says Annand, who has worked in the area for more than three decades.
Despite all the work, there are still parcels of land in need of protection. That's try in Ashe County, and the Roanoke River, Alligator River and in the longleaf pine forests from the Sandhills to Jacksonville. "2016 was a very good year," says Annand. "but I'm already looking to 2017 and beyond."