Thursday May 19, 2005

Fayetteville Observer: Stream regains glory

By Nomee Landis Staff writer

Harrison Creek has been reincarnated at Privateer Farms.

At least that's how Sharon Valentine refers to the transformation that has
taken place on her property, a 5,895-acre farm that straddles the
Cumberland-Bladen County line off N.C. 53.

The engineers who moved dirt and built roads and filled ditches to
accomplish the task prefer a different description. They call it stream
restoration, and they call the job at Privateer Farms the biggest stream
restoration project in state history.

Engineers with Buck Engineering in Cary spent 18 months returning about 7
miles of Harrison Creek to its former meandering glory. In the 1980s, it was
diverted into a straight, deep channel when the wetlands around it were
drained for farming.

The firm is completing the work as part of a mitigation project for the N.C.
Department of Transportation. Restoring wetlands at Privateer Farms, allows
the state to destroy other wetlands while building highways elsewhere in the
state.

The department is paying Buck Engineering $11.5 million for the work through
the state Ecosystem Enhancement Program, an initiative under the N.C.
Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The engineering firm paid
Valentine part of that for the purchase of a permanent conservation easement
on the land.

To Valentine, the creek is the crown jewel in a plan to return the entire
farm to its natural state. Valentine and her late husband, Steve Quinn,
decided about five years ago to give up the farm and return it to nature
when they retired. The project has been a lesson in patience, Valentine
said.

A million turkeys

The couple bought the farm in 1988. At one time, they raised a million
turkeys a year in 40 turkey houses, and 1,000 Boer goats grazed in the
farm's fenced pastures. Corn, soybeans, hay and other crops sprouted on
about 2,000 acres.

Quinn died a few weeks after the creek restoration project began in 2003.
Valentine has overseen the work since then.

She also supervises work elsewhere on the farm. All the livestock is gone.
One by one, the turkey houses are being dismantled. She has found places for
the sheet metal that once covered the roofs. Now she is looking for ways to
sell the timber.

It is sad to see it all go, Valentine said, but it is exciting to see what
is emerging in its place.

Since August last year, Valentine has watched workers carve the stream's new
path from a 6-mile field that Valentine calls ''the big island."

On Wednesday, Valentine accompanied Jim Buck, the president of Buck
Engineering, and Kevin Tweedy, a water resources engineer with the firm, on
a tour of the project.

Tweedy has worked as design engineer on the project. He said the job
required three full-time crews, several trackhoes and other large equipment
and many hours of physical labor.

Many trees along the ditch that held the stream were removed. And 300,000
saplings - oaks, sycamores, cypresses and other wetland species - were
planted by hand in the 430-acre project area.

At one time or another, each piece of equipment got stuck in the mud. A
consultant drove into a ditch. Others got lost in a maze of dirt roads that
traverse the farm.

Buck and Tweedy said the crews have seen a multitude of animals while they
have worked: bobcats, beavers, quail, deer, wild turkeys, a few snakes. The
tracks of many animals remain in the dirt roads that cut across the field,
providing evidence of their visits to the water.

Plants on the grow

The creek's new banks are wrapped in a biodegradable netting that held seeds
in place earlier this year. The nets will disappear in the next two years,
and the trees, grasses and sedges will grow up around the dark water.

Workers tilled the field into rough waves to allow water to stand in low
places.

While the real work ended earlier this spring, the engineers must monitor
the project for five years, to ensure that a certain number of the trees
survive and to make sure the wetland is returning.

Tweedy said the project is most vulnerable now to weather and animals. The
deer will nibble the young trees, and the beavers will try to dam the narrow
spots in the new creek bed.

Valentine said the plan to restore the rest of the farm has stalled, so she
has leased some of the cropland to farmers again this year. She and Quinn
had planned to work with state and federal agencies to enroll the remaining
acres in various conservation programs.

Valentine hopes she can find a way to make it work. She would like her farm
to be a conservation model for the rest of the state and the country.

Valentine plans to watch the new stream slowly return to its former
grandeur.

''If there is one thing you learn with working with land and nature," she
said, ''is you learn patience."

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