Land Purchases Bolster Conservation Efforts

The recent expansion of the Gales Creek Preserve is the first conservation project to meet the criteria of the fund created earlier this year as a result of a $7 million settlement between North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Sierra Club over the state’s proposed U.S. 70 Havelock Bypass through the National Forest. Photo: Contributed

CARTERET AND CRAVEN COUNTIES — In recent years, the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust has worked to conserve land in all corners of eastern North Carolina.

Efforts include work at Site X of the Lost Colony in Bertie County and preserving thousands of acres near Lake Waccamaw in the south. More recently, the organization turned its attention to the central coast with two acquisitions, one using funds from the North Carolina Department of Transportation to purchase land near the Croatan National Forest and another adding acres to the Brice’s Creek preserve.

“The two properties aren’t really related, except that this will be an area of focus for the next 12-36 months,” said Camilla Herlevich of Wilmington, executive director of the Coastal Land Trust. “And we are very excited about this first use of settlement funds.”

Rare Habitat

As soon as news spread about the preferred route for the long-planned U.S. 70 bypass of Havelock through a protected forest that’s habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, members of the Croatan Group of the North Carolina Sierra Club began to fight the project. It was an effort that lasted years, said Cassie Gavin, director of government relations for the organization’s North Carolina chapter. The Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit in 2016.

red cockaded woodpecker

The red-cockaded woodpecker is an endangered species. Photo: Sam Bland

The Sierra Club reached a $7.3 million settlement earlier this year with NCDOT, and in turn reached out to the Coastal Land Trust to explore possibilities for preservation that would make the most strategic sense.

“The goal is to protect the land and water,” Gavin said, adding that working with the Coastal Land Trust in this regard was a good fit. “Longleaf pine forests used to be all over the Southeast, and now they are a rare habitat. We’re excited about conservation possibilities.”

Adding to the excitement is that news of this first acquisition in the area came just months after the settlement was announced.

“This happened quickly because we’ve been looking at this area for a long time,” Herlevich said. “We just didn’t have the money to purchase it.”

When the property was listed for sale as part of a larger tract with commercial frontage on N.C. 24, the Coastal Land Trust was able to make an offer to the seller, Talton Enterprises.

“One of the great things about having access to these funds is that we can act in the real estate market,” Herlevich said.

Using part of the settlement, and a private grant from Fred and Alice Stanback, the organization purchased a 113-acre tract of longleaf pine forest, pocosin wetlands and about a half mile of frontage along Gales Creek, which empties into Bogue Sound near Newport. The land adds to the organization’s Gales Creek Nature Preserve and abuts a portion of the Croatan National Forest in Carteret County.

“It’s the first time in 26 years that we’ve been able to do this with the national forest,” Herlevich said.

While the area is important for a number of reasons, preservation of scenic ecosystems isn’t always the main goal.

“Another reason to save land is to help carry out certain management regimes,” Herlevich said. “That’s the case here.”

The land is strategically located to make it easier to carry out the necessary prescribed burns to maintain and restore important habitat, said Janice Allen, Coastal Land Trust deputy director in New Bern.

Other provisions of the settlement call for NCDOT to employ a conservation easement, that the department use environmental practices during construction, which is scheduled to begin in early 2019, and that they close the bypass for these burns, when asked by the U.S. Forest Service.

With this addition, the Gales Creek Preserve totals more than 360 acres, and adds to the other thousands of acres the group has protected in the area along Mill Creek, Turnagain Bay and Long Bay, and at Brown’s Island and near Core Creek.

Craven County Preserve Expanded

The Land Trust also recently announced the purchased 37 acres that will be added to its Brice’s Creek Preserve in New Bern, which now totals more than 60 acres.

With the purchase of 37 acres, the expanded Coastal Land Trust’s Brice’s Creek Nature Preserve now totals more than 60 acres in Craven County near James City. Photo: Contributed

“This is a little oasis,” Herlevich said. “It could easily have been developed, and the lands all around there are being developed.”

The area offers a haven for wildlife, floodplain protection along the creek for the community, and stands of bottomland hardwood, Allen said.

The group bought the property from Overlook Holdings LLC, the owners and developers of Carolina Colours, a residential community next to the preserve. Funds for the purchase were provided by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and donations from the members of the Land Trust.

“It’s not a large piece of land, but it is beautiful,” Herlevich said.

“Right now, there are no plans for the area to be open to the public. Some of what we do is banking land for the future,” she said. “It becomes more valuable over time.”

Looking Ahead

“This will be an important area for our work for the next few years,” Herlevich said of central North Carolina.

With the mandate to preserve habitat and ecosystems about the Croatan National Forest, the organization is compiling a kind of wish list. And as news spread about the funds, landowners are also reaching out to the Land Trust.

“I’m sure we will have more big announcements ahead,” she said.

About the Author

Allison Ballard

Allison Ballard is an award-winning writer and journalist who covers topics such as food, film, science and the environment for a variety of local and regional publications. Since early days as high-school reporter, she’s gained experience in much larger newsrooms and through graduate programs at the University of Cape Town and the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Allison loves to travel, but always returns home to the North Carolina coast.