On June 29, Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina acquired 303 acres in the South Mountains of Burke County for permanent conservation.
The undeveloped, forested property — known as Rock Creek for a stream that flows through the land — adjoins the conservancy’s South Mountains Headwaters Preserve. The land acquisition increases the total size of the preserve to 1,796 acres and extends conservancy ownership to Old NC 18 (State Road 1924).
Streams on the Rock Creek property drain into both the Henry Fork River watershed and the Jacob Fork River watershed. In addition to watershed protection, other conservation values include two waterfalls, a record of the State Significantly Rare Golden Banded-Skipper butterfly, and a small population of the federally threatened species Hexastylis naniflora, more commonly known as dwarf-flowered heartleaf. Approximately 143 acres of the property are registered with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program as the South Mountains Pleasant Grove Uplands Natural Area.
Foothills Conservancy purchased the property for a bargain sale price from conservation philanthropist and conservancy supporter, Tim Sweeney. Funding for the acquisition and transaction costs was provided by a grant of $291,352 from North Carolina’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund, a private contribution from conservationists Fred and Alice Stanback, and an $80,000 grant from Open Space Institute.
“The Rock Creek project furthers Foothills Conservancy’s commitment to protecting watershed lands in the Catawba River Basin, conserving diverse forested habitats for wildlife, and preserving the unique landscape of this region for the benefit of all,” said Foothills Conservancy Executive Director Andrew Kota. “Our land trust’s work takes collaboration and we are proud to work with our partners at the Open Space Institute and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to achieve a conservation outcome for the property. We are also grateful for project support from Mr. and Mrs. Stanback, and thankful for Mr. Sweeney’s dedication to conserving natural lands in Western North Carolina.”
A significant feature of the property is its above-average climate resiliency, meaning that ecosystems on the landscape are better able to retain their integrity as changes in climate occur, thus sustaining plant and animal habitats. The property is home to microclimates, which are smaller, unique zones within the existing ecosystems, that enhance its climate-resilience status.
“The Open Space Institute is proud to have supported the protection of the Rock Creek property, and prouder still to continue to protect lands in North Carolina that will be a critical stronghold for wildlife and humans for generations to come,” said Peter Howell, the Open Space Institute’s executive vice president. “We congratulate Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina on their protection of this amazing place, forever.”
The Foothills Conservancy Rock Creek 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 the capacity of land trusts working to respond to climate change.
The water quality protection achieved by conserving the property aligned with the Clean Water Management Trust Fund’s water quality goals.
“The acquisition protects over seven miles of streams on the headwater tributaries of the Henry Fork River and the Jacob Fork River, both of which are classified as Outstanding Resource Waters,” said Walter Clark, executive director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. “We are glad to see more acreage added to an already large landscape of protected land.”
Foothills Conservancy currently owns more than 3,700 acres in preserve lands in Burke, McDowell, and Rutherford counties. Preserves are properties that the land trust holds in fee-simple ownership and stewards itself for permanent conservation, and natural resource protection and enhancement. While these lands are not always open to the public, they focus on watershed protection, sensitive habitat conservation, scenic open space protection, and occasional recreational access.