Charlotte Observer Dec. 5, 2003

A chunk of land saved for park
Conservancy acquires 500 acres of prime nature area in county

JOE DEPRIEST, Staff Writer

The Catawba Lands Conservancy, in its largest land purchase yet, will buy 500 acres of what is considered the most important natural area left in Gaston County.

Officials say the pristine land along Stanley Creek is significant because of its size and ecological diversity. They also say it's one of the most important pieces of undisturbed property in the region and state, and preserving it will add safeguards to East Gaston's water quality and wildlife habitat.

Stanley Creek feeds into Dutchmans Creek, a tributary of the Catawba River.

The land is home to rocky streams, mature hardwoods and wetlands. In the spring, it's dotted with such wildflowers as bloodroot and Solomon's seal and hundreds of big-leaf magnolias, the largest-leafed tree in North America.

The $3 million to buy the land will come from the state's new Ecosystem Enhancement Program that finds and protects the best preservation sites on land and water. The multi-agency initiative includes the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the N.C. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The program uses DOT money to compensate for the impact of road construction on streams and wetlands.

Combined with adjoining land already under conservancy protection, the new property deal will create an 800-acre preserve in East Gaston. The property is part of a state-significant natural heritage site, a designation given to areas with outstanding ecological diversity.

"It's a fabulous forest," said Ron Altmann, executive director of the Charlotte-based conservancy. "In very few times in the Piedmont do you acquire a chunk of land this size and all in one piece."

He said preserving the property has been a conservancy priority for years. Now, he said, the conservancy will spend about a year developing a plan that will allow public access to the property for educational purposes.

"This will be a wonderful resource for learning about wildlife and flora," Altmann said.

Richard Rankin, chairman of the conservancy's Gaston advisory group, said Gaston's creeks and rivers furnished the water power that ushered in the county's textile industry during the 19th century. Now, he said, creeks and rivers are "leading the way toward a better quality of life."

"It's like a rediscovery," Rankin said. "They can attract people to live here and enjoy a superior quality of life. It is truly not just a county but a state treasure. This is really an extraordinary accomplishment for the conservancy."

The property, three miles southeast of Stanley on Old N.C. 27, belongs to the estate of Estelle Rankin, and the principal owners live in Eastern North Carolina. Richard Rankin is a distant cousin of Estelle Rankin.

The Estelle Rankin property is adjacent to the 41-acre Stowe Educational Forest, family land donated to the conservancy by Mary Stowe of Winston-Salem in 2000. The Rankin acreage would expand on the Stowe forest and offer opportunities for guided nature hikes and outdoor learning activities.

Earlier this year, the conservancy applied for the majority of the land money from the state's Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The conservancy also tried to get contributions from neighboring towns.

In June, the town of Stanley turned down the conservancy's request for $50,000; in May, the Mount Holly City Council declined a request for $250,000. Officials in both towns agreed the land purchase was a good idea but said they couldn't afford to help.

Later, letters of support for the project were sent to the state from Stanley, Mount Holly, Gaston County commissioners, the Gaston Chamber of Commerce, Connect Gaston, the Gaston County Quality of Natural Resources Commission and the N.C. Forest Service.

Stanley City Manager Ed Humphries called the land purchase a visionary project.

"So often a lot of us think in the short term," he said. "Now, a big hunk of property is going to be preserved forever. I think that's important. If you don't preserve these properties now, they'll be lost forever."

Joe DePriest: (704) 868-7745; jdepriest@charlotteobserver.com