Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, in partnership with N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and other funders, has permanently conserved one of the largest remaining unprotected Catawba River Basin watershed tracts in the South Mountains.
The conservancy and the state parks system purchased a 2,207-acre tract known as Simms Hill on June 4 from owner Tim Sweeney in two concurrent transactions. Of the total acreage, 757 acres were acquired by the state and added to South Mountains State Park, bringing the park to more than 19,000 acres.
Foothills Conservancy acquired the remaining 1,450 acres to establish the regional land trust’s new South Mountains Headwaters Preserve for the protection and enhancement of water quality, biodiversity and wildlife habitat. A permanent conservation easement protecting 300-foot streamside buffer zones on 624 acres of the property was conveyed to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Foothills Conservancy acquired an additional 43-acre tract known as the Wright Tract earlier this year, which will also be part of the new preserve.
“This latest acquisition by Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina will protect a Significant Natural Heritage Area in South Mountains State Park as well as water quality in the park’s pristine streams,” says Mike Murphy, state parks director. “It’s a great example of the conservancy’s commitment and our proven partnership to safeguard natural resources for future generations.”
More than 16 miles of headwater streams lace the rugged, heavily forested mountain tract and feed the state-designated “Outstanding Resource Waters” of the Henry Fork and Jacob Fork rivers. These rivers converge downstream to form the South Fork of the Catawba River, a major tributary of the Catawba River that supplies clean drinking water to more than two million Carolinians. The watershed land borders three miles of South Mountains State Park and ranks as a high protection priority in Foothills Conservancy’s 2010 “South Mountains Outstanding Resource Waters Riparian Corridor Conservation Plan” funded by the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
Achieving permanent protection for Simms Hill involved a multi-year, collaborative effort to raise $3.3 million from numerous public and private funding partners.
“This project is a great example of the variety of methods and partnerships an effective land trust utilizes to accomplish permanent conservation,” says Andrew Kota, the conservancy’s stewardship director and project leader. “Over two-and-a-half years, the conservancy partnered with the private landowner and two state agencies and leveraged funds from seven different public and private sources to protect this valuable watershed and enhance public enjoyment of South Mountains State Park.”
In 2012, Foothills Conservancy approached conservationist Tim Sweeney about partnering to protect the bank-owned tract after the previous owner’s development plans failed following the recent recession. Sweeney purchased the land and gave the conservancy three years to raise the funds needed to purchase the tract for the same price he had paid for it.
The conservation value of the land was so high that the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund awarded three grants totaling $1.8 million to the project: two to Foothills Conservancy and one to the state parks system. Each grant had to be matched by donated land value or other funds. Additional public funds included $220,000 from the N.C. Parks & Recreation Trust Fund and $40,000 from the N.C. Department of Justice’s Environmental Enhancement Grants program.
Private contributions made up the remaining $1.4 million needed to complete the acquisition and support long-term stewardship of the 1,450-acre South Mountains Headwaters conservancy preserve.
Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury, who are long-time supporters of Foothills Conservancy and land conservation in North Carolina, made a generous gift of $880,000 toward the acquisition. Tim Sweeney donated two inholding tracts totaling 100 acres, within the large Simms Hill Tract, which he acquired for $238,000. Other private grants for the project included $100,000 from Duke Energy’s new Water Resources Fund and $23,000 from Conservation Trust for North Carolina’s Mountain Mini-Grant program. Unifour Foundation, Community Foundation of Burke County and Huffman-Cornwell Foundation grants also helped support the conservancy’s multi-year protection effort.
“We thank State Parks, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and all our visionary funding partners for helping us protect this critical watershed and enhance South Mountains State Park for the benefit of this and future generations,” says Kota. “We especially thank Tim Sweeney for stepping forward to buy and hold this tract, giving us very generous terms and the time to secure funds from multiple sources, as well as donating the two inholdings. We are deeply grateful to Fred and Alice Stanback for so generously supporting this and many other significant land conservation projects across the South and Blue Ridge mountains.”