On July 20, Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina completed transfer of the Buck Creek Gap tract in McDowell County to the United States Forest Service. The Forest Service competed for funding at the national level and ultimately received $330,000 in Recreational Priority Access funds from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) program in order purchase the key inholding property from the conservancy.
The 73-acre tract is located along N.C. Highway 80 near its junction with the Blue Ridge Parkway and borders the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway to the north and Pisgah National Forest on three sides. Its protection buffers parkway views, including outstanding vistas from Forest Service lands and the nearby Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
A generous contribution from conservationists Fred and Alice Stanback allowed Foothills Conservancy to secure the property in 2013. At the time, the Forest Service expressed interest in purchasing the property from the conservancy but needed time to try to acquire funding. Proceeds from the sale to the Forest Service will support acquisition and conservation of other significant lands along the Blue Ridge Parkway and mountains.
“Foothills Conservancy has helped us achieve several goals with this acquisition, from providing recreational access in a popular area to maintaining clean and abundant water downstream and mitigating wildfire risks posed by development in a very remote area of the forest,” said Allen Nicholas, forest supervisor for the National Forests in North Carolina. “With this access we can also eliminate some invasive species on the property to help foster a healthy ecosystem.”
Acquiring the inholding tract helps the Forest Service better manage Pisgah National Forest and protects the headwaters of Buck Creek, which is a significant creek flowing into the Catawba River near Marion. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality designates Buck Creek and its headwaters as “High Quality Trout Waters.” As part of the National Forest, the Buck Creek Gap tract will provide increased access for public recreation including hunting and hiking. Hundreds of thousands of visitors pass by the property on N.C. Highway 80 to access the Blue Ridge Parkway and Mount Mitchell State Park.
“This project provided us with an opportunity to work collaboratively with the Forest Service to protect a critical inholding, and it’s a great example of the incredible impact that a program like the Land and Water Conservation Fund has here at home,” said Tom Kenney, Foothills Conservancy’s land protection director. “We are glad to see Buck Creek Gap forever protected as part of the National Forest, providing additional public access as well as preserving scenic views along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and protecting a high quality watershed in the Catawba River Basin.”
LWCF, established in 1964, is a federal program that supports the protection of federal public lands like national parks and recreation areas; provides grant monies to state governments to develop state and local parks and other outdoor recreational spaces, such as ball fields; helps states fund habitat protection for threatened and endangered species; and protects working forests that support timber sector jobs. It is funded by a small portion of the money that oil and gas companies make through offshore drilling.
This federal fund’s existence relies on public support. It was on the brink of expiration in 2015, and although Congress reauthorized for it for three years, its future is far from certain. Members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation, including Senator Richard Burr and Congressman Patrick McHenry, have fought for permanent reauthorization for LWCF and continue to be leaders in advocating for it.