On Thursday, Sept. 9, Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina purchased 130 acres along N.C. 80 and Buck Creek in McDowell County, between Marion and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The project, Sunnyvale Slopes, is named after the area’s once-thriving logging community, which, itself, is a Registered Natural Area through the N.C. Natural Heritage Program, according to a news release.
The forested tract adjoins extensive Pisgah National Forest lands, owned by the U.S Forest Service, which extend northwest to the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway and northeast toward Woods Mountain. Foothills Conservancy plans to transfer ownership of the tract to USFS in 2022, creating additional connections from N.C. 80 and Buck Creek to the public lands of Pisgah National Forest.
Conservation of this property protects a more than quarter-mile section of Buck Creek and several of its tributaries, including Straight Branch. Each of these mountain streams is designated by the N.C. Division of Water Resources as high quality, a public water supply, and as trout waters based on the exceptional biological, physical and chemical characteristics. Additionally, Buck Creek is a source of drinking water for the city of Marion.
The undeveloped land hosts an abundance of plant and wildlife species, including more than 50 bird species considered high priorities for conservation by the Appalachian Mountain Joint Venture program. Several diverse natural forest communities comprise the site, including four that are considered at-risk either in North Carolina or around the world. More than 250 plant species were identified on the property, including one rare species, according to the release.
“The National Forests in North Carolina greatly appreciates the partnership we have shared with Foothills Conservancy over the years in working toward a common goal of protecting significant lands in Western North Carolina,” said Nick Larson, USFS Grandfather District Ranger. “The future addition of the Sunnyvale Slopes property to Pisgah National Forest is a great opportunity to improve public access to Buck Creek and protect the watersheds around it.”
The property’s steep and rugged landscape within the escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains are characteristics that make it a resilient area as the climate changes. Climate change is altering species distributions in unpredictable ways, and conservationists must be strategic in prioritizing land conservation projects with the greatest impact — protecting the maximum amount of biological diversity despite changing distribution patterns. According to The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Sites for Terrestrial Conservation in the Southeast Region Assessment, nearly the entire property is rated as “Above Average,” indicating it is a strategic priority area for biodiversity conservation in the face of climate change. The term “site resilience” refers to the capacity of a site to adapt to climate change while still maintaining diversity and ecological function, according to the news release.
The tract hosts a variety of native forests and contains a moderate amount of good- to excellent-quality natural communities. Within the forest matrix, Low Elevation Seeps, streams, massive evergreen thickets and small rock outcrops lend additional diversity to the forested landscape.
“Foothills Conservancy values our partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service to improve benefits of Pisgah National Forest, expand public access, and permanently conserve high quality natural resources and public water supplies in the forested mountains of our Western North Carolina region,” said Foothills Conservancy Land Protection Director Tom Kenney. “Buck Creek and N.C. Highway 80 offer outstanding scenic vistas to countless annual westbound visitors of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Mount Mitchell State Park.”
Funding for the acquisition came from Foothills Conservancy’s Land Acquisition Fund, a revolving source of funds that the land trust uses to cover land purchases and transaction costs, which it seeks to replenish and grow over time in order to respond quickly and proactively to new conservation opportunities like this one. The future sale of the land to the U.S. Forest Service will help Foothills Conservancy recover the costs for this project.
Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina is a nationally accredited regional land trust that inspires conservation in Western North Carolina by permanently protecting land and water for the benefit of people and all living things. A 501©(3) nonprofit, Foothills Conservancy serves eight counties: Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Cleveland, Lincoln, McDowell and Rutherford, in three major river basins: the Broad, Catawba and Yadkin. Information about Foothills Conservancy, including ways to support its work, can be found online at www.foothillsconservancy.org or by calling 828-437-9930.