Charlotte Observer Dec. 7, 2003

Park preserve worthy but needs selling

COMMENTARY: By DAVE BAITY

I suspect that a great many people weren't excited by the news that the Catawba Lands Conservancy has landed a $3 million state grant to buy 500 acres of pristine land along Stanley Creek.

I didn't share that reaction, but see why some would.

They probably choked at the price and saw no personal benefit from the planned purchase. Even council members in Stanley and Mount Holly -- towns that would benefit from protecting part of their watershed -- turned down requests for money to buy the land because of pressing municipal budget problems.

So it stands to reason that touting the plan to spend taxpayers' money the way they did wasn't the best approach. Their selling points were that it would protect water quality and form a wildlife habitat. But how do people who live elsewhere in the state, whose taxes helped support the purchase, benefit from those things?

Gaston residents and people across the state are weary of their tax money bankrolling projects generated by what they consider an elite bunch of tree-huggers.

They want to know what's in it for them. And the sooner environmental groups learn that, the easier it will be to generate enthusiasm among rank-and-file residents.

The conservancy hinted that the public will have access to the land they plan to buy with money from the state's new Ecosystem Enhancement Program. It adjoins the 41-acre Stowe Educational Forest, which was donated to the conservancy in 2000.

The new acreage would expand that forest and offer opportunities for guided nature hikes and outdoor learning activities, they said.

That statement, though, probably conjures images of third-graders taking a nature walk. A more direct benefit that would generate citizen support would be installing trails where anyone could take relaxing walks to get away from the stress of today's hectic life. Harried adults could enjoy the streams, woodlands with hundreds of big-leaf magnolias and rare wildflowers at their own speed.

Having such an escape is going to become increasingly important in eastern Gaston County, where more than 3,000 new homes are due to pop up in the next few years.

Giving such access certainly has worked for Crowders Mountain State Park, which lures visitors from surrounding counties and tourists from across the nation and a fistful of foreign countries.

Park Ranger Kelly Cooke estimates attendance at the 5,053-acre park in western Gaston County at 300,000 a year. They come to hike the park's 12 miles of trails, he said, and to picnic, fish and climb the cliffs on the mountain that gave the park its name.

"We meet a lot of people from out of state, especially South Carolina," Cooke said. "I've also met people from Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Mexico, India, Russia and South Africa."

To me, showing people they can pump the economy while preserving the environment seems like the best pitch for any project.

Dave Baity: (704) 868-7749; dbaity@charlotteobserver.com