Foothills Conservancy’s Catawba Headwaters Preserve Grows by 259 Acres

Acquisition funded entirely through private contributions

Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina is pleased to announce that, in an effort fully funded by private contributions, it has purchased and permanently protected 259 acres in the Catawba River’s headwaters near Old Fort in McDowell County.

The property, known as the Sank Gap tract, contains nearly a mile of the ridge of Edmondson Mountain, including Sank Gap. It adjoins Foothills Conservancy’s Catawba Headwaters Preserve on two sides and conservancy-held conservation easement lands in the Creston Community on another. Foothills Conservancy plans to add the tract to its 1,592-acre Catawba Headwaters Preserve.

Acquisition of the property also conserves a significant portion of the Edmondson Mountain Natural Area, identified by North Carolina’s Natural Heritage Program for its range of natural communities, which are similar to those found in nearby Pisgah National Forest. The land is known for its high resiliency, allowing it to continue to provide habitat even under changing climate conditions.

“This property has been a high priority for us for a while, and we are very pleased that it is now protected,” said Tom Kenney, Foothills Conservancy land protection director. “It is important not only because it contains streams that impact the water quality of the Catawba River—a source of drinking water for millions of North and South Carolinians—but also because it ranks highly as a resilient landscape as climate change occurs. We are grateful to all of the private contributors who made this purchase possible.”

Significant streams on the tract drain into Little Crooked Creek, a tributary that joins the Catawba River downstream of Old Fort. The Catawba River Basin is one of North Carolina’s most important river basins. More than two million Carolinians from Marion to Charlotte and downstream to South Carolina rely on the river for their drinking water supply.

A generous bargain sale by the tract’s owner, conservationist Tim Sweeney, combined with other private gifts and grants, made permanent preservation of the land possible. The project was supported through the Open Space Institute’s Resilient Landscapes Initiative, which is made possible with funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The Resilient Landscapes Initiative seeks to build capacity of land trusts working to respond to climate change. The Sank Gap tract falls within the initiative’s Southern Blue Ridge Focus Area.

“The resiliency of Sank Gap will make it an invaluable haven for wildlife and human communities as the climate changes,” said Peter Howell, the Open Space Institute’s executive vice president in charge of the Conservation Capital Program. “This project demonstrates the important role that land conservation can play in protecting places that are not just important today but will endure far into the future. Foothills and its many partners, including landowner Tim Sweeney, are to be commended for their vision and commitment.”

In addition to the $155,000 grant from the Open Space Institute, funding for the project also included a generous commitment of $81,300 from conservationists Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury. Creston Community residents Lynn and Nick Nicholas hosted a house party and made a generous $25,000 matching gift, challenging their friends and neighbors to match their gift dollar for dollar to help the conservancy raise the funds needed before its option to purchase expired in early 2017.

“Nick and I are grateful that our friends and neighbors in Creston joined us in the effort to preserve this magnificent tract of forest connecting Hicks and Edmondson mountains,” Lynn Nicholas said. “We will enjoy seeing its unspoiled beauty every day and knowing we are contributing to the biodiversity and quality of the environment for generations to come.”

Duke Energy contributed the final $8,500 needed to complete the project’s funding as a tribute gift in memory of longtime Foothills Conservancy supporter Paul Braun, who passed away in early January. Braun founded Citizens to Save Lake James and led efforts to keep the waters of the Catawba River and Lake James clean.

“Duke Energy learned of the funding challenge to purchase the Sank Gap property at about the same time we heard the unfortunate news about Paul Braun’s passing,” said Jeff Lineberger, director of Water Strategy and Hydro Licensing for Duke Energy. “We are proud to contribute to the protection of this important property in memory of Paul’s dedication to the protection and enjoyment of natural resources in the Lake James area.”