Fayetteville Observer January 5, 2005

Group floats park proposal

By Nomee Landis
Fayetteville Observer staff writer

CLINTON - Ralph Hamilton wants a state park in Sampson County, and he knows just where to put it - along the Great Coharie Creek.

In December, the state purchased 4,858 acres of land along the Great Coharie from the Nature Conservancy for $3.23 million. The conservancy bought the land to protect the buffer of vegetation that runs along the creek, and ultimately to protect the quality of the Black River, into which the Great Coharie flows.

Hamilton, a kayaker and canoeist, has been a longtime supporter of the creek and all of Sampson County's waters. He serves on the board of Friends of Sampson County Waterways, which for years has been looking for ways - and money - to make the county's rivers and creeks more accessible to canoeists and kayakers.

On Tuesday afternoon, Hamilton was part of a group of about 15 gathered at the Sampson County Administration Building to talk about his idea. State Rep. Larry Bell attended, as did former Rep. Nurham Warwick. Kermit Williamson, chairman of the Sampson County Board of Commissioners was there, along with several county employees and a few nature enthusiasts.

Hamilton told the group he got the idea for a state park while paddling at Merchant's Millpond State Park in Gates County in the northeast corner of the state. He said he believes that with enough local support, the idea could become reality.

Hervey McIver, a protection specialist with the Nature Conservancy, told the group about the land, which his organization bought from International Paper in 2002. The property was part of a $24 million deal that transferred more than 38,000 acres in southeast North Carolina from the paper giant to the conservancy.

The land follows the swamp along the creek for 16 miles: from N.C. 24 north to within about two miles of Newton Grove. The purchase was a risk for the Nature Conservancy, McIver said, because the conservation group did not have a buyer lined up. The organization took the chance to protect the Black River - one of the state's most pristine rivers. The river supports ancient cypress trees, the oldest trees east of the Rocky Mountains.

The state's Ecosystem Enhancement Program bought the land from the conservancy. That program is housed within the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and is a partnership between that agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Transportation.

The Department of Transportation provides money to buy and protect wetlands and other significant lands as mitigation for the destruction of similar lands during highway construction.

Now state environmental officials must determine which state agency - or private group - will manage the land along the Great Coharie, said Tad Boggs, a spokesman for the Ecosystem Enhancement Program.

Not a priority

The Great Coharie has not been identified as a priority within the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, said Don Reuter, a spokesman for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. But the upper Black River in Sampson County is included on the list as a potential new state park. State environmental officials consider the Black River to be of national biological significance, while the Great Coharie is considered to have only local significance.

Williamson, the chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, said he is interested in the idea of a state park along the Great Coharie, even though the idea is still new.

''I learned long ago not to say 'nay' to anybody's idea," Williamson said. ''I definitely want to take a look at it."

Hamilton said the county contributed $31,000 to clear a 10-foot path in the creek between U.S. 421 and N.C. 24, making it passable for small boats. He said the Friends of the Sampson County Waterways would like to see the Great Coharie designated as a state park. That would take passage of a bill in the General Assembly.

Hamilton has referred to the Great Coharie Creek as the heart of Sampson County, a treasure that many more could enjoy. Hamilton would like the creek included in the state's Paddle Trails program, although that program has been hurt by state budget problems in the past several years.

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