Lenoir News Topic May 25, 2004

5,621-acre Mingo tract dedicated as gameland

By PATRICIA TALLENT, News-Topic County Editor, ptallent@charter.net

A partnership between state agencies and private non-profit organizations will allow 5,621 acres in the Yadkin Valley to be preserved for generations to enjoy, said William "Bill'' Ross Jr., secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Ross made the comments Tuesday during a dedication ceremony at Fort Defiance. The event was attended by state and local dignitaries.

Grants to purchase the property from Jesse Horton were provided by The Conservation Fund, N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF), the Ecosystem Enhancement Program and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

One of the last undeveloped large tracts of land in the area, the Mingo tract contains a portion of the headwaters of the Yadkin River. The property is located in Caldwell and Wilkes counties.

The tract was purchased for approximately $22 million and will be operated by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission as one of the state's gamelands. It will be open to the public for fishing and hunting.

A total of $13.5 million was contributed by the CWMTF; $1 million from the Natural Heritage Trust Fund and $7.5 from the Ecosystem Enhancement Program operated by the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) and DENR.

Caldwell County Commissioner Ron Beane, a member of the CWMTF, thanked the N.C. General Assembly for funding the CWMTF. Since the agency began in 1996, it has funded $405 million in conservation projects for land acquisition, right of way, wastewater and stormwater.

"This project will protect a portion of the headwaters of the Yadkin River," Beane said. "It also will protect water quality at Kerr Reservoir, which would have been affected if the site had been developed.''

The governor is proud of the state and private organizations working together on the Mingo tract preservation project, said Ruffin Poole, Special Counsel to Gov. Mike Easley.

"With development pressure occurring along Highways 321 and 421, it's important to the governor that open space be protected so people can continue to have areas for fishing and recreation,'' Poole said.

The project also will preserve the history and culture of Caldwell County, Ross said.

Ross said Easley asked him and Lyndo Tippett, N.C. DOT secretary, to begin a new story of the DOT and DENR working together as a team, which "had not been the norm.''

North Carolina's new Ecosystem Program involves the DOT and DENR and the U.S. Corps of Engineers, Ross said. He praised all the state and private agencies involved in the Mingo project.

Ross said he worked with Caldwell County for years to resolve the controversial Caldwell Systems Incorporated incinerator.

"I am glad that has been resolved and the county has been able to move past that and begin a new story of conservation,'' Ross said.

The Mingo project and the county's effort to get Wilson Creek designated as a Wild and Scenic River are examples of cooperative efforts between local, state and private agencies, Ross said.

Both projects are important to preserve "the quality of life, quality of place and one of our most precious resources, water,'' Ross said.

N.C. DOT Board Member Sam Erby of Granite Falls said when he was in high school he did not enjoy history, but now he is enjoying "being a part of history. ''

Erby thanked Tippett, who he said has been his mentor and trainer on the DOT board.

"This is as important as anything I have attended since the governor appointed me in 2001,'' Tippett said. "It shows what we can accomplish if we all work together.''

Preservation of the Mingo tract will allow it to be enjoyed for generations and the area to attract new visitors, Tippett said.

"A quality transportation system and a clean, safe environment are essential for development of North Carolina,'' he said. "The Ecosystem Program is a national model.''

In addition to constructing new roads, Tippett said, "It is the DOT's duty to protect the wetland and to reduce the erosion effects.''

Preservation of the Mingo Tract will protect 13.8 miles of streams full of smallmouth bass and trout, Tippett said. The rugged property on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains also is the home of numerous plant and animal species.

"Preservation of this land will protect bears and coyotes,'' Tippett said.

The DOT has been able to help with similar projects throughout the state, Tippett said. A project in Hoke County near Fayetteville will preserve 2,500 acres and the endangered Red Cock-headed Woodpecker.

Tippett thanked Jesse Horton, who owned the property, "for having the vision to make the property available to the public.''

Preservation of undeveloped tracts in the mountains is important because the mountains are facing increasing pressure from development, said Larry Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund.

The non-profit organization has been involved in preservation projects throughout the nation.

"You have one of the best teams here in North Carolina,'' he said.

Every year the United States loses 3 million acres or 8,000 acres of forest land each day to development, Selzer said.

Preserving open space provides the public recreational opportunities and protects water quality, Selzer said.

"It also protects travel and tourism, which will soon be North Carolina's top industry,'' Selzer said. "This property is located about three hours from 90 percent the state. It will be the backbone of our economic growth.''

Since 1998, the cost of mountain land has "increased three-fold,'' Selzer said. The rising cost of mountain land makes it difficult to purchase land for public open space, he said.

From the Atlantic shores to the mountains of North Carolina similar projects have protected 170,000 acres, valued at $160 million, Selzer said.

Selzer praised Easley for his vision of state and public partnerships in preservation efforts. He presented state officials with the organization's Conservation Leadership Award.