Conservation Outdoors

Conservation: Foothills Conservancy Supports Expanding Pisgah National Forest

Burnfield Branch, a tributary of the Johns River. Photo courtesy of the Foothills Conservancy

By Emma Castleberry

Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina continues its tireless environmental protection efforts with two recent property purchases—Sunnyvale Slopes in McDowell County and Burntfield Branch in Caldwell County. “Both properties have significant natural resources and each fills in a missing puzzle piece of Pisgah National Forest,” says land protection director Tom Kenney. Many people might assume that a national forest like Pisgah is a continuous stretch of protected land, but in reality there are several parcels of private land mixed into the federal lands managed by the Forest Service. “It almost looks like a checkerboard or a quilt—there are a lot of pieces missing,” says Kenney. “Both of these projects are good examples of filling in such gaps.”

Continuous stretches of protected land offer improved habitat preservation and climate change resiliency. “Whenever you have private properties in between permanent conservation lands,” says Kenney, “there is vulnerability. On a larger scale, certain lands are believed to have better capability of resilience because they have more niches and more micro-habitats. The greater the variety of different types of lands that are all conserved in a formal network, the better species and vegetation communities can adapt.”

Water quality can also be managed more effectively when lands are conserved in completion rather than piecemeal. “Both Sunnyvale Slopes and Burntfield Branch protect sections of very significant streams recognized by the state of North Carolina as important trout or other aquatic habitat and they are also important for water supply and public drinking water,” says Kenney.

Buck Creek, typical conditions on western property boundary. Photo by Kevin Caldwell,

Burntfield Branch is a 118-acre property along Highway 90 between Blowing Rock and Collettsville. Surrounded by Pisgah National Forest on three sides, this parcel will bring new fishing opportunities along Johns River, additional recreational access to the forest and a new hiking trail to the public when it is transferred to the Forest Service in the next few years. Burntfield Branch is home to a number of spring wildflowers, most of which bloom in early April, and the property also features at least 205 types of flora and fauna, including two species of bat. The property includes a mix of southern yellow pine and hardwood forest, as well as meadows and boulder fields that provide a diverse habitat for wildlife.

Sunnyvale Slopes is a 130-acre parcel located between Marion and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The project is named after the area’s former logging community and adjoins Pisgah National Forest, with Foothills Conservancy expecting to transfer it to the Forest Service in 2022. Sunnyvale Slopes includes a quarter-mile section of Buck Creek and many tributaries of this important public water supply—the only source of drinking water for the city of Marion. The area is home to more than 50 high-priority bird species as well as at least four at-risk forest communities and one rare plant species. The Nature Conservancy completed an assessment recently that identified Sunnyvale Slopes as an “above average” priority area for protecting biodiversity from climate change. Like Burntfield Branch, this property will improve recreational access opportunities to the national forest once transferred.

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