Fayetteville Observer January 12, 2005

Rhodes Pond protected; state will manage the land and water

By Nomee Landis
Fayetteville Observer staff writer

The state has purchased a 455-acre pond north of Godwin that will now be managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

Rhodes Pond lies just west of U.S. 301 in northern Cumberland County. The Honeycutt family has owned the pond since 1964. For years, the family has operated Rhodes Pond Fish Camp, offering access to boaters, paddlers and fishermen for a small fee. A variety of fish, from bass to bream and chain pickerel, swim in the pond.

The state paid the family $375,000 for the pond in December, said Candace Williams, the project coordinator for the Cumberland County office of the Sandhills Area Land Trust. She began the fight to protect Rhodes Pond more than three years ago.

The N.C. Natural Heritage Program considers Rhodes Pond to be a regionally significant area because of its plant and animal species and its natural beauty and history. Williams said this is one of what the land trust hopes will be many such sites that are permanently preserved in Cumberland County.

The money for the purchase came from the N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program, which buys sensitive tracts of land to compensate for the destruction of similar lands during road construction projects.

John Pechmann, a Fayetteville lawyer, is chairman of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. An avid fisherman, Pechmann has fished at Rhodes Pond.

''This is a marvelous acquisition," Pechmann said, ''and we are looking forward to managing it."

Black water

Rhodes Pond is a black-water pond, fed by the Black River, a 33-mile stream that originates south of Angier in Harnett County. Water from the pond flows into Mingo Swamp, which joins the South River.

The river that flows into the pond is not to be confused with the larger Black River, which begins in Sampson County at the confluence of Great Coharie and Six Runs creeks. The Black River in Sampson County joins the South River at the Bladen- Sampson county line.

Cypress trees line the shores of Rhodes Pond. Great blue herons and great egrets nest at the site. Groups of anhingas, which are large, long-necked birds that resemble cormorants, can often be seen circling above the pond and drying themselves on tree limbs. Anhingas are rare in North Carolina.

The pond also boasts a breeding population of little blue herons, a species of concern in the state. American alligators have been seen in the pond, and beavers and muskrats are common.

Pechmann said the commission will develop a management plan for the pond that will likely focus on fishing and bird-watching. Protecting the habitat for wildlife will be key.

Pechmann gave credit for the deal to Williams. ''She is directly responsible for the state being able to take over this treasure," he said.

A chance encounter in January 2002 launched the quest to preserve Rhodes Pond, Williams said.

Williams had gone to a ceremony celebrating the preservation of 2,400 acres off N.C. 211 near Calloway Road in Hoke County. About 75 people - fellow conservationists, state officials and state legislators - attended. Williams took along her plan for Rhodes Pond, hoping to find a sympathetic ear.

''I knew I wanted to save Rhodes Pond, but I didn't know how to do it," Williams said. ''I said, 'I will find somebody that day who will help me.'"

She did. A man named Roger Sheats, a deputy secretary with the N.C. Department of Transportation, overheard her talking about the pond. It turned out, she said, that Sheats held a fondness for the pond, too.

''He said, 'I heard you talking about Rhodes Pond,'" Williams said. ''I said, 'I have really been praying about this. I came today with the plan in my car. I need to find somebody to help me.'"

Sheats told her he was the person who could find Transportation Department money for such projects.

''Roger, you don't know it, but you have a divine appointment with me today," Williams told him.

Sheats and several other state officials gathered around her car to look at maps and hear her plan. Later, she took her plan to Pechmann. The Wildlife Resources Commission board agreed to accept the property if the money could be found to buy it.

Pool of money

When the Ecosystem Enhancement Program was created about 18 months ago, Williams said, it provided a pool of money that could be tapped to save the pond and other special places like it. That program is a partnership between the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

While Williams, Pechmann and others celebrate the transfer of Rhodes Pond to the state, at least one member of the Honeycutt family mourns its loss.

Myra Baker is the daughter of Jerry Honeycutt, the man who purchased the pond in 1964. She said that giving up the pond was a difficult decision for her and her family.

''It's painful," Baker said, ''although we feel it was the right thing to do to preserve such a pristine place of nature."

In 2002, Baker and her sister, Marsha Olive, founded a stream-watch group called the Black River Reflectors to help protect the water quality of the Black River and the family pond. They have hosted bluegrass and gospel music gatherings at the pond ever since, an effort to get the word out. Musicians and music lovers gather at a house near the pond.

The Reflectors will host an arts and music festival at the pond the first weekend in May, Baker said, and the music will continue.

Staff writer Nomee Landis can be reached at landisn@fayettevillenc.com or 486-3595.