Conservation and recreation access plan now complete for Henry Fork and Jacob Fork rivers

On Friday, Feb. 28, the Western Piedmont Council of Governments (WPCOG) and Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina completed the Henry Fork and Jacob Fork Rivers Conservation Plan. The plan, developed by WPCOG over a nine-month research period, ultimately aims to conserve these two aquatic resources while also creating access points for river recreation.

The new plan identifies clear goals for the conservation of significant natural resources along the Henry Fork and Jacob Fork rivers — offering recommendations to conservation groups, local governments, state natural resource agencies and landowners — to ensure high quality drinking water, reduce water pollution from land erosion, and expand public outdoor recreation opportunities that are key to economic growth in the western Piedmont near Hickory and Newton.

With funding support from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, Catawba County, Foothills Conservancy, Beaver Foundation and Duke Energy (Piedmont Natural Gas) Foundation, WPCOG administered the planning, performed detailed analyses of resources and gathered input from stakeholder partners to create the final plan. The planning area covers both rivers’ watersheds in eastern Burke and western Catawba counties, between N.C. Highway 18 and the exit for N.C. Highway 10 along U.S. 321.

“The Henry Fork and Jacob Fork Watershed Conservation Plan, with its priorities and goals, along with the future implementation efforts, will go a long way toward achieving water quality benefits,” said John Wear, senior planner and natural resources administrator for WPCOG. “The identification of priority parcels for conservation and recreation will reduce surface water pollution associated with erosion and stream sedimentation and provide future access for recreational corridors. This plan is not only beneficial for the natural environment, but also for the City of Newton’s drinking water intake on the Jacob Fork River near U.S. 321.”

Foothills Conservancy and its partners in Catawba County formulated the preliminary study goals which included engaging stakeholders, identifying small focus areas in the study watersheds, compiling data on water quality and natural/historical/cultural resources, reviewing existing public recreation assets in the area, and mapping areas best suited to voluntary conservation activities, like trails and paddling access points.

After several meetings, partners and stakeholders — including representatives from Catawba County; Burke County; the cities of Hickory, Newton and Conover; N.C. State Parks; N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission; N.C. Division of Water Resources; Friends of Valdese Recreation and the Catawba Valley Heritage Alliance — identified the following strategies to address these goals: 1) collaborate with local, county and state agencies to acquire conservation lands and public trail easements; 2) conserve a network of undisturbed stream/riparian buffers through voluntary partnerships; 3) work with interested landowners to explore potential river paddling access locations; 4) recommend reclassification of Jacob Fork River to either a higher status of North Carolina public water supply watershed or as an Outstanding Resource Waters stream; 5) highlight apparent streambank and riparian buffer restoration opportunities related to improved water quality; 6) implement blueway trails; 7) sponsor an updated natural heritage inventory of significant native plants, fish and wildlife habitats; 8) increase water quality monitoring along rivers; 9) encourage implementation of stormwater management techniques in urbanizing areas; and 10) possibly consider lower density residential zoning along Jacob Fork River.

“The North Carolina Wildlife Resources is excited to partner with Foothills Conservancy and Catawba County to identify and promote the wonderful natural resources in the Jacob Fork and Henry Fork rivers,” said District 8 Fisheries Biologist Chris Wood. “Both rivers have an abundance of wild and native aquatic species, including rare crayfish and freshwater mussels.”

On the recreation benefits of the study, Wood continued: “Opportunities will expand for recreational paddlers and anglers as we identify appropriate parcels to develop public fishing and boating access areas. Anglers can expect to see redbreast sunfish, bluegill, rock bass and smallmouth bass in each river. Boaters will experience a beautiful foothills float with rocky outcrops and unique mountains-to-Piedmont forest communities. This project will help protect valuable resources for future generations to enjoy, and expand opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. It will also help surrounding landowners and communities realize the importance of conservation efforts and how these efforts promote healthy lifestyles and enhanced economies.”

Walter Clark, executive director of Clean Water Management Trust Fund and director of the Division of Land and Water Stewardship, commented on the importance of funding such a study.

“As an organization that distributes state funds to protect land for natural, historical and cultural benefit, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund places a high value on efforts to provide public access to our state’s natural resources,” Clark said. “By identifying parcels that can provide direct public access to streams, rivers and lakes in the Jacob Fork and Henry Fork watersheds, Foothills Conservancy and its partners help ensure that the WPCOG access plan can guide the development of safe, sustainable and popular fishing spots, trail heads, boat launches and picnic sites. Such public access to our natural world cannot help but serve our communities, further our education and keep North Carolina a special place to work and live.”

Foothills Conservancy previously collaborated with the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund to complete a similar conservation plan for the two rivers farther upstream, near South Mountains State Park, in 2010.

The conservation plan report is expected to be available at county planning offices in Burke and Catawba County in April. Voluntary conservation activities and agreements are happening now.