Paddling Black River: Park Study Underway

Paddling around ancient cypress trees on the Black River. Video: Trista Talton

Second in a three-part series.

David Stahle has a way of verbally painting a picture of the Black River that taps into your inner explorer and leaves you thinking, “I want to see it.”

“There’s only one Black River, North Carolina,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest natural areas in the world. Nowhere else in the world do you have 1,000-, perhaps 2,000-year-old trees that are growing out of the water where you can kayak amongst them. I’ve been to many of the oldest known tree sites in the world. None of them are growing from a river as beautiful as the Black River.”

Stahle is the University of Arkansas professor who discovered the ancient bald cypress trees growing along river banks and swamps by accident in the 1980s while doing research on the relationship between cypress tree growth rings and climate change.

David Stahle

News of the ancient trees made various publications, piquing the interest of explorers wanting to see the majestic trees and conservation groups wanting to preserve them.

“We’ve been acquiring property there since 1991,” said Debbie Crane, The Nature Conservancy’s communications director.

Today, The Nature Conservancy owns and manages more than 2,200 acres, including the Three Sisters Swamp, in its Black River Preserve and monitors conservation easements on more than 260 acres of privately owned land.

In all, about 14,500 acres have been protected primarily through partners, including the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, according to The Nature Conservancy’s website.

“If you’ve got the oldest trees on the East Coast you want to make sure they don’t get shovel logged,” Crane said. “We want to make sure we get the prime property to protect it. We’re just lucky these trees didn’t end up mulch in someone’s yard. We’re always looking for property there and probably will continue to buy property.”

A Black River State Park?

Throughout its nearly 70-mile stretch from its headwaters in Sampson County over into Pender County then Bladen County, where it flows into the Cape Fear River, much of the Black River’s waterfront property is privately owned.

There are two public wildlife boat accesses on the river.  The first is a North Wildlife Resources Commission ramp at Ivanhoe Road in Sampson County. The second is at Hunt’s Bluff roughly 20 miles downriver in Bladen County.

A couple of private property owners allow access from their properties for a nominal fee. These are popular spots for kayakers and canoeists who enjoy paddling the stretch of river that accesses Three Sisters.

“No Trespassing” signs are posted on either side of the river’s banks, but the warnings routinely go unheeded, property owners say.

Groups like Friends of Sampson County Waterways, a club whose members help maintain and preserve that county’s waterways, have obtained permission from some riverfront property owners to stop for lunch and take breaks during paddle trips.

“We would like people to enjoy it as much as we do,” Crane said. “Right now, the prettiest places, we own. Making it a public park would open those areas. We just think it belongs in public ownership. ”

In March, House Bill 353 was introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly. That bill included a proposal for a Black River State Park.

The proposed Black River State Park had been cut out of the bill when legislators passed it in June. By then, mounting backlash from riverfront property owners had reached the halls of the General Assembly.

The North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation is currently doing a feasibility study on the proposed park, as directed in the version of the bill Gov. Roy Cooper ultimately signed in July. The division, along with The Nature Conservancy, recently held a series of community meetings in the three counties through which the river flows.

Katie Hall

“We’ve got a lot of local support from some counties and not from others,” said Katie Hall, state parks and recreation spokeswoman. “We’ve definitely heard a lot of concerns from citizens about too many people coming to the area and damage occurring to the ecosystem.”

Parks officials estimate a Black River State Park would draw each year roughly 50,000 visitors, an estimate officials based on the numbers of visitors to the Lumber River State Park.

“It’s just a best guess based on the closest linear park with a few accesses and facilities,” Hall said.

Still, that number alarms some property owners, who raise numerous concerns ranging from trespassing to pressure on small, local first-responder resources.

Hall said the meetings parks officials hosted earlier this fall were held to try and set the record straight.

“There’s a misconception that state parks are involved in taking property and forcing people to sell their land,” she said. “We don’t do that. We only work with willing private land owners.”

The parks service has three goals: conservation, recreation and education.

“Conservation really rises to the top as the focus and the most critical aspect of what we do,” she said. “When we have a resource like (the Black River) in our state our priority is to incorporate that property into our park system. It protects that area from ever being developed in a way that is harmful to that ecosystem. The idea would be we would purchase property from the nature conservancy that would protect the most delicate natural resources.”

The feasibility study area includes roughly 2,600 acres and 45 miles of the river corridor, although that’s not an indication of the area proposed for a park. A state park size or area has not been proposed, Hall said.

There are also options in lieu of a state park.

The river could be designated a state natural area or be added to the state trail system. Natural areas are those designed for viewing wildlife, nature and conducting research without the presence of recreational amenities.

Part of the state parks’ study is looking at what option is most appropriate for the river, Hall said.

The parks’ study must look into the accessibility of the river, gauge the local communities about the proposed state park, identify potential impacts on those communities and the river’s ecosystem, and estimated cost to develop the park.

Parks officials have to report their findings to the Legislative Oversight Committee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources by March 1, 2018.

“There will be more meetings later in the year and, in the meantime, the study will continue,” Hall said. “Considering the very delicate nature of these resources, I think everyone would agree that the focus here would be accesses to these natural resources with great respect for them and not leaving a trace behind.”

Anyone wishing to participate in the study may submit comments to

Learn More

Read Part 1: History, Ancient Trees

Next: Why Locals Oppose Park

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.