Winston-Salem Journal, May 5, 2005

 

Easing Growth: Plant habitat safe

By Monte Mitchell
JOURNAL REPORTER

WEST JEFFERSON

 

A new conservation easement at Elk Shoals United Methodist Camp will protect a 1.25-mile stretch of the South Fork of the New River, including the habitat of a threatened plant species.

Virginia spiraea is a shrub in the rose family, with arching stems and cream-colored flowers. It's found in rocky, flood-scoured riverbanks such as the section along the river at Elk Shoals. The flooding topples trees so the plant can get the full sunlight it needs.

Dams and other development, as well as competition from exotic plant species, have made Virginia spiraea rare. Isolated populations have been found in only six North Carolina counties in the past 20 years.

The easement will prohibit development on this part of the camp's property in perpetuity.

"We're pleased and delighted we're able to do that for many reasons," said Ed Adams, the trustee chairman of Camp Elk Shoals. "The main thing is this conservation easement will save a (threatened) plant species."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defines a threatened species as one that is likely to be at the brink of extinction in the near future. (An endangered species is one that is at the brink of extinction now.)

The easement includes 95 acres of property downstream of the low bridge into Camp Elk Shoals.

The National Committee for the New River bought a 300-foot-wide buffer along the camp side of the river there. The property is steep. The camp donated land from the buffer to the top of the ridge.

The easement was purchased for $164,400 with money from the North Carolina Ecosystem Enhancement Program. The program was established in 2003 in an agreement among the N.C. Department of Transportation, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help preserve, replace or restore streams or wetlands affected by road construction.

Eric Hiegl, the land-protection director for the National Committee for the New River, said that the easement protects the property from subdivision or development. The camp still owns the land but plans to restrict access to that portion of its property.

"It will always be like that for future generations," Hiegl said.

Elk Shoals United Methodist Camp is set in a bend of the South Fork of the New River that forms a peninsula of the camp's mostly wooded 300 acres.

The camp's director, Pete Parish, a minister and former stand-up comic, said it's miraculous the way the unexpected money came about and how the camp will play a role in preserving a threatened plant.

"I've been praying for some time something wonderful would happen," Parish said. "I'm just sorry we didn't find the ivory-billed woodpecker."

That bird was thought to have become extinct 60 years ago. Last month, wildlife biologists reported confirming several recent sightings in Arkansas.

Scientists from Appalachian State University found the Virginia spiraea, Parish said.

Since the early 1990s, the National Committee for the New River has protected more than 2,000 acres and 25 miles of river and stream frontage. The group also works to restore eroding banks, lobbies for river protection, oversees a water-quality monitoring volunteer network and educates people about the New River.

In addition to being the chairman of the board of Elk Shoals Methodist Camp, Adams is a former board member of the National Committee for the New River.

"He's been a friend of the river for a long time," Hiegl said.

Monte Mitchell can be reached in Wilkesboro at (336) 667-5691 or at mmitchell@wsjournal.com