Southern Pines Pilot, Oct 3, 2008

Long Valley Farm: Groups Teaming Up For Conservation Effort

BY JUDY JESSOP: SPECIAL TO THE PILOT

This past spring I stood on decking behind an old gristmill, imagining the rusty wheel laboring on.

Although the mill hasn't operated since the 1960s, it remains intact, ready and waiting to be put back to use. Downstream of the mill, Jumping Run Creek stretches out, calmly meandering off toward the shady woods.

Though clear, the water is dark and tea-colored, typical of black water streams. Darting minnow shadows lurk among the reeds.

This old mill is located on Long Valley Farm. A beautiful old property in Harnett and Cumberland counties, owned since the 1920s by the Rockefeller family. The sprawling clapboard house with its ample porches afforded the family airy, comfortable accommodations, while the millpond provided excellent fishing and swimming. The mill ground countless truckloads of grain, and the hydropower was also harnessed to generate electricity for the house, mill and farm.

James Stillman Rockefeller, the most recent family member to own the property, had a strong desire to preserve Long Valley Farm. When he died in 2004, at the age of 101, he bequeathed the property to the North Carolina Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which has since worked to restore the open, fire-dependent, longleaf pine forest that once blanketed the entire region.

By the end of 2008 all the cropland and pasture will be converted to longleaf pine forest and/or native grasses. The large, 120-acre field, which is so prominent at the center of the farm, will remain open and treeless, retaining the cultural and agricultural feel of the farm while preserving habitat for open-country flora and fauna. This will also improve the diversity of species that can use the area.

Many treasures are cradled in this land. Biologists from the Conservancy and the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program continue to inventory the wealth of natural areas, including mature stands of longleaf pine and old-growth hardwoods, a cypress-gum swamp with fat buttressed trees reaching 100 feet or more toward the sky, and meadows supporting a number of carnivorous plants such as sundews and pitcher plants.

The farm also harbors rare birds: Bachmann's sparrow and the loggerhead shrike have been seen, as well as the federally listed red-cockaded woodpecker. Eastern fox squirrels also reside here.

The property has never been open to the public, but The Nature Conservancy has decided to donate the farm to become a North Carolina State Park by the end of 2009. Very soon visitors will be able to experience the charm of this historic property.

I was fortunate to get a preview with Jeff Horton and Jan Eason, biologists who work with the North Carolina Ecosystem Enhancement Program. We were there to examine and photograph Jumping Run Creek, which runs through the property.

Nature's Way

The condition of Jumping Run Creek below the millpond is an excellent example of a black water creek. This meandering stream has lots of vegetation, wet areas and shade, all of which work together to keep the water of the stream healthy. The vegetation growing nearby, including low areas with lush wetland plants, sops up polluted rainwater and releases it as a slow, clean trickle, much like a sponge and filter.

As the surface runoff from heavy rain rushes along, it picks up and carries sediment, excess fertilizer, trash and other debris. When it encounters dense growth, however, this flow disperses and the velocity of the rainwater slows, allowing particles of sediment drop from the water and plant roots to absorb the nutrients from fertilizers. This important function of wetland ecosystems reduces the potential of a subsequent downstream algae bloom, which can lead to fish-kills. Meanwhile, debris is snagged in the plants where it slowly decomposes. In such situations, much of the water is free of sediment by the time it works its way to the stream.

The trees and shrubs also shade the water, which keeps it cool. The cooler the water the higher the oxygen content, and the higher the oxygen content the more diverse the populations of mussels, aquatic insects, fish, and other aquatic flora and fauna will be. Creeks run into larger streams and rivers, finally reaching estuaries and the sea. So, all waterways along the way need filter systems if we are to have the wealth of fish, seafood and clean water that we humans depend upon for our health.

Human Alterations

In a family known for its environmental ethic, James Rockefeller continued the tradition at Long Valley Farm, where beautiful longleaf forest dominates the 1,500-acre property. Over the nearly 90 years the Rockefeller family owned Long Valley Farm, it produced many different commodities, such as tobacco, strawberries, timber and cattle. Like countless farms across the country, however, Long Valley also provides some examples of how humans have altered the landscape for our betterment, while unwittingly degrading the very waterways that we depend on for clean water.

One demonstration of such alteration is found on a tributary that enters Jumping Run Creek downstream from where I was standing at the mill. We took a dirt road over to some farm fields that are now being restored to longleaf pine forest.

After a mile or so we reached the point where the road crosses the tributary. If you stand on the road over the stream's culvert and look to the left, a straight channel shunts water away from the original course of the tributary, right into Jumping Run Creek. Gone is the original stream that once slowly slinked for another mile, like a coiled ribbon across the landscape, before reaching Jumping Run.

As one looks to the right and up stream there is a ditch, which runs along the road for a few hundred yards where it then makes a 90-degree turn, with a deep trench running in a straight line between two fields.

Many years ago workmen ditched the fields to improve drainage for the adjacent croplands, as was done on farms across the country. While effective at improving agricultural yield, such ditches lower the water table of the immediate area. The addition of cattle, that drink and wallow in the ditches, between grazing the adjacent pastures, further degrades water quality.

The Nature Conservancy has now removed cattle from these fields and is working to restore the upland portions to longleaf pine forest. Along the ditched tributary, however, the banks are still hollowed and muddy in many places -- the result of the cutting action of fast-moving water. Interspersed along the trench are areas where banks caved in and now lay in sediment-laden clumps, forming islands.

In several places, where cows had easy access to the stream, there is the usual evidence that remains where cattle have spent time: manure, mud, murky water. Algae are the primary vegetation in the water, floating in large clots, or clinging to rocks, blades of grass and other debris. The stream bottom is silty with little vegetation except for algae, all of which gets washed into Jumping Run Creek with each heavy rain.

Once this was a healthy tributary that ran through the low point of this landscape. During heavy rains the stream stretched wide, filling low, wet areas, which slowed flooding down stream. These low areas, with associated wetland plants, were ideal for sediment retention, which kept erosion at a minimum.

As I look at this stretch of degraded stream, I think of the vast number of farms that carpet North America engaging in the same practices. To this, we must then add the number of streams buried under city streets with storm drains depositing contaminants from the city above, and also wastes that are dumped directly into streams and rivers from factories and many other businesses.

Add to all this the many gutters running beside parking lots and along roads channeling contaminants from oil, engine fluids and emissions directly into waterways. The list goes on -- such thoughts are mind boggling, and when we tally the many sources of contamination, it is easy to understand why our rivers, lakes, estuaries, even our oceans are degraded and polluted.

Steps Toward a Solution

At Long Valley Farm my biologist friends, Jeff and Jan, are interested in the degraded section of the tributary I just described, for it empties into Jumping Run Creek, which in turn joins the Little River and then the Cape Fear River downstream. The North Carolina Ecosystem Enhancement Program (NCEEP) works in partnership with public and private organizations across the state to help curb the loss of the state's natural areas and resources. One example of their work is the restoration of degraded streams like this tributary to Jumping Run.

The mission of the EEP is to "restore, enhance, preserve and protect the functions associated with wetlands, streams and riparian areas, including but not limited to those necessary for the restoration, maintenance and protection of water quality and riparian habitats throughout North Carolina." Riparian habitat is all the vegetation and wildlife that live along the banks and wetlands adjacent to streams, rivers, lakes or any waterway.

The NCEEP originated in 2003 with an agreement between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, N.C. Department of Transportation and N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. NCEEP works to locate areas where restoration will benefit the watershed the most, then restore the wetlands and waters if the landowners are willing. Local land trusts, and other nonprofits such as the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and The Nature Conservancy have been excellent partners in these efforts statewide.

These organizations work together to find areas of the state where habitat and water quality is in need of help. NCEEP uses existing funding from the N.C. Department of Transportation to offset the unavoidable damage to wetlands and other important natural areas when the department is building new roads or making improvements to old ones.

One of the things NCEEP also assists with is fixing threatened or degraded streams and wetlands to restore their natural functions. In the case of the tributary to Jumping Run, the original stream with its meanders, wetlands and associated plants would be restored. A buffer of plants and trees would be planted along the stream, which will filter contaminants and slow runoff during heavy rain. The stream would then revert to its original functions of preserving water quality by controlling floodwaters, checking erosion and filtering polluting runoff.

This small tributary of Jumping Run is in a targeted area of the state where streams are in need of special attention. An important underlying rule of the program is that it is totally voluntary -- only if the owner is interested will NCEEP step in to help. In the targeted areas, where landowners are interested, the NCEEP has several options available: a simple sale or donation of property for restoration. The land is then restored and preserved as a natural area. Many tracts become state parks and game lands.

In situations where the landowner wishes to retain ownership NCEEP stands ready to work out voluntary agreements through conservation easements. (A conservation easement enables a landowner to retain private ownership of the land, but with development restrictions. This easement lasts forever, applying to all future owners of the land.) Such partnerships are fundamental to protecting water quality.

Plans for Long Valley Farm

Sometime next year visitors can come to this historic farm -- wander about the millpond, visit the old gristmill and view the Rockefeller house.

It is a beautiful old place. Whenever you visit, I hope you will also wander down to the tributary, once it is restored, to see for yourself the results of the NCEEP's efforts. Meanwhile visit this special "Voice Thread" site: http://jumpingruncreek.wikispaces.com/. You will find pictures, maps and other information about the plans for the tributary's restoration. There will also be pictures of the millpond, house and gristmill -- a sneak preview of the place that is about to become a local state park. You can also ask questions and make comments on this site. I hope you take time to visit.

Contact Judy Jessop at jgjessop@gmail.com.