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Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina’s recently completed “South Mountains to Blue Ridge Corridor Study” clearly reveals the conservation significance of a 30-mile span of low elevation mountains stretching from the South Mountains to the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
On the low mountains’ steep slopes, rocky outcrops and stream banks, a plethora of rare and threatened plants and smaller animals thrive in numerous unique, distinct habitats, many of which are part of Significant Natural Heritage Areas (SNHA) designated by the N.C. Natural Heritage Program.
In fact, some of North Carolina’s largest and most important SNHA sites occur across this landscape, including the South Mountains, Box Creek Wilderness, Bob’s Pocket Wilderness, Hickorynut Mountain, and the Hickory Nut Gorge, a portion of which is now part of Chimney Rock State Park.
These mountains, most former timber tracts, provide a wilderness home and pathway between the piedmont and the mountains for a rich and diverse array of wildlife.
The corridor has long been a major protection focus area for Foothills Conservancy and identified by other conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy, as ecologically significant. In the South Mountains alone, the regional land trust has worked with willing landowners, local and state partners, and The Nature Conservancy to protect more than 28,000 acres that are now either state park or state game lands.
Several other notable “stepping stones” across the corridor are now either publicly or privately protected, including 12,000 acres pieced back together over the last two years into one unbroken, forested tract by Tim Sweeney, for which the N.C. Wildlife Federation has selected him to receive their 2013 Governor’s Award for Land Conservationist of the Year.
“The landscape that Tim has conserved includes one of the state’s most highly ranked and largest privately-owned Significant Natural Heritage Areas, the 5,800-acre Box Creek Wilderness, and another jewel called the Bob’s Pocket Wilderness,” said Susie Hamrick Jones, Foothills Conservancy’s executive director. “These 12,000 acres connect to the South Mountains State Game Land and their protection represents a major conservation achievement.”
To the west near Old Fort, Foothills Conservancy’s 1,340-acre Catawba Headwaters Preserve, along with a 477-acre conservation easement on the Creston development and 88 acres the land trust acquired which now provides public access to Catawba Falls, protects almost 2,000 acres adjoining Pisgah National Forest and permanently protect water quality along miles of headwater streams.
Together, these privately protected areas link to almost 50,000 acres protected in the South Mountains State Park and State Game Land and to hundreds of thousands acres of Blue Ridge Mountain lands in Pisgah National Forest.
Foothills Conservancy worked with BioGeoCreations, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis and mapping consulting firm, to analyze the rugged landscape factoring in elevation, slope, hydrology, land cover, important bird areas, biodiversity, road density and existing conserved lands.
The large blocks of forests also protect the water quality of headwater streams and source watersheds of the Catawba and Broad Rivers, which provide drinking water for millions of Carolinians.
“For years, Foothills Conservancy has worked with willing landowners and many partners to protect lands from the South Mountains across to the Blue Ridge around the Hickory Nut Gorge and Old Fort,” said Tom Kenney, the conservancy’s land protection director. “With Tim Sweeney’s recent large acquisitions, this critical corridor finally has a real chance of being permanently conserved.”
Other important conservation projects are already underway in the corridor.
For example, Foothills Conservancy has a three-year option with Sweeney to purchase a 2,100+acre tract adjacent to South Mountains State Park -- at the price he paid. He agreed to acquire the foreclosure tract last year and hold it while the conservancy raises public and private acquisition funds. A NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund grant was awarded to Foothills Conservancy last year to cover a portion of the acquisition costs, and other grants and private funding proposals are pending. The headwaters of the Jacob and Henry Fork rivers – both designated as Outstanding Resource Waters and trout waters by the state – begin on the tract and together eventually form the South Fork Catawba River.
Foothills Conservancy and other conservationists will use the results of the “South Mountains to Blue Ridge Corridor Study” for years to come to help guide land and water conservation efforts with interested and willing owners of other high priority tracts linking the South Mountains to the Blue Ridge Escarpment.