Durham Herald, Dec. 10, 2003

Charlotte group helps win protection for forest along Old N.C. 27

By DANA HAYDOCK

GASTONIA, N.C. -- Drive north from Mount Holly on Old N.C. 27 and soon housing developments fade away, replaced by densely wooded forest on both sides of the road.

And thanks to a $3.2 million grant from the North Carolina Ecosystem Enhancement Program, the forested property will stay that way.

The Catawba Lands Conservancy, a Charlotte-based land conservation group, will use the money to purchase 506 acres of land known as the Estelle Rankin Forest.

The purchase will place the land in a conservation easement -- a legal designation that forfeits development rights on the land. The purchase, the conservancy's largest, will bring the total land preserved by the group to about 5,000 acres.

The property spans Old N.C. 27 and Willowside Drive just south of Stanley-Lucia Road. Combined with 309 acres of previously protected properties, the purchase will bring the total protected acreage to more than 800 acres in the Stanley Creek area.

But conservancy officials hope to raise that total to about 1,500 acres in the next few years, including linking the property with future greenways designated in the city of Mount Holly's Greenway Master Plan.

"This is a resource for the community," said Catawba Lands Conservancy Executive Director Ron Altmann.

The grant includes the cost of the land, the cost of the real estate transaction and money to start a fund for the management of the property. Land trusts like the conservancy are required to pay the appraised value of the land, which in this case is about $6,000 per acre.

"It's an environmentally significant property that I think should be preserved against development," said State Sen. David Hoyle, who helped the conservancy get the grant.

"For hundreds of years, we sort of took our water resources for granted and now we have to pay attention to the way we protect our waters. It's something we'll have now forever."

The conservancy has plans to open part of the property to the public for things like hiking and other forms of nonmotorized recreation.

The Estelle Rankin property will also provide a link to a neighboring protected property known as the Stowe Educational Forest.

Both will be used to educate the public about biodiversity, ecology and other natural sciences.

Richard Rankin, the head of Gaston Day School and the initial Stanley Creek area landowner to make a conservation easement donation to the conservancy, plans to integrate the property in his school's environmental science program.

"When this property was identified as a state natural heritage site several years ago I began thinking this is really a special place," Rankin said. "Now our vision has gotten much bigger."

Other schools and groups will also be able to use the property for educational purposes.

"I feel that as you have an urbanizing population that is disconnected from the land, through education we can instill values for these things," Altmann said.

A large part of the property is designated a state significant natural heritage site, which means it has outstanding ecological diversity. The property includes steep slopes, rocky outcroppings, meandering streams, mature hardwood trees and wetlands. Bigleaf magnolias and yellow lady slippers -- both uncommon plant species -- grow on the property.

The heirs of Estelle Rankin had considered developing the land, including thoughts of a golf course, Rankin said. They gave the conservancy a year to come up with the money to buy the land before considering other offers, he said.

Altmann said keeping the property undeveloped will help protect water flowing into Stanley Creek, which empties into the Catawba River.

The land and surrounding properties also contain an abundance of cultural significance. There's evidence of an old wagon trail crossing the property and nearby lies the 1799 house and bicentennial farm owned by Richard and Barbara Rhyne.

The new Ecosystem Enhancement Program is a land conservation grant program of the state Department of Transportation, state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Estelle Rankin property is one of about 36 properties given funding since the program started in July.

The EEP recently announced a partnership with the Conservation Trust for North Carolina to work with the state's 22 local land trusts to identify the highest-quality properties for preservation.

"It's basically setting up a pipeline based on local knowledge," said Tad Boggs, spokesman for the EEP.

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