Western Acquisitions Fill South Mountains State Park Gaps

Two relatively small acquisitions will make a big impact on future public access to North Carolina’s largest state park in the South Mountains.

Aided by Foothills Conservancy, the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation has added two properties to South Mountains State Park that secure critical missing links between the park’s westernmost edge along Highway 64 south of Morganton and its wide interior reaching east to the park’s main entrance off Old Highway 18.

Late last year, the state parks system received a grant from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund to purchase 95 acres featuring Shoal Creek Falls from Foothills Conservancy, finally connecting South Mountains State Park’s eastern and western sides.

More than a year earlier, Foothills Conservancy had moved quickly to execute a right of first refusal and buy the tract from Velsie McCurry’s heirs for eventual addition to the park. A generous contribution from conservationists Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury along with a loan from Conservation Trust for North Carolina supported the Conservancy’s purchase of this high-priority property next to the Clear Creek Watershed section of South Mountains State Park. The Stanback gift allowed the Conservancy to then sell the property to the State at a discount.

During this same time period, Foothills Conservancy worked with the state parks system and William Barron, son of the late Dr. John Barron and Nelle Woodbury Barron, to execute a right of first refusal that the Conservancy held on the Barron’s home and surrounding 37 acres. Dr. Barron had earlier worked with Foothills Conservancy to sell the adjoining 698 acres, which he owned with his wife’s estate, to the state parks system in several phases between 2007-10, thus extending South Mountains State Park to Highway 64 on either side of his picturesque home and remaining acres.

The purchase of Dr. Barron’s home and remaining land in December 2014 was completed with funding from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The acquisition gives South Mountains State Park more than a mile of frontage along Highway 64 and Roper Hollow Road, which can eventually improve visitor access to the park’s western section.

“Through this final sale to North Carolina State Parks, a dream of my parents has been fulfilled to ensure that this beautiful and wild ecosystem is preserved,” said William Barron. “It is worth noting that the Barron-Woodbury property was at one time part of a large expanse of land owned by my mother’s father, the late Luke Woodbury and is part of Burke County’s history.”

These two acquisitions enhance conservation on the western side of the South Mountains and build upon nearly two decades of Foothills Conservancy’s and North Carolina’s state parks partnership protection efforts which have expanded South Mountains State Park by more than 9,000 acres to make it the State’s largest at 18,627 acres, which attracted 195,975 visitors in 2014.

“The addition of these properties is a strong contribution to the conservation and recreation mission at South Mountains State Park,” said Mike Murphy, N.C. State Parks and Recreation director. “Connecting the eastern and western sections of the park is critical in helping us fulfill an ambitious master plan there. Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina has been a stalwart partner of the state parks system and other state agencies in that region. We’re grateful for the skill and persistence the Conservancy brought to these projects.”

“We have one of the best, if not the best, state park systems in the entire United States,” said Susie Hamrick Jones, Foothills Conservancy’s executive director. “Foothills Conservancy couldn’t ask for a better partner in our protection efforts in the South Mountains, as well as at Chimney Rock and Lake James. Our land trust is proud to play a role in securing tracts like these that are critical to public access and enjoyment of our region’s state parks.”