Conservation Outdoors

Conservation: More Protection at Wilson Creek National Wild and Scenic River

Wilson Creek. Photo courtesy of Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina

By Emma Castleberry

In April, Foothills Conservancy announced the donation of an important parcel of land: a 322-acre tract within the corridor of the National Wild and Scenic Wilson Creek in Caldwell County. Donated to the Conservancy by longtime environmental steward and conservation philanthropist Tim Sweeney, this tract fills in a missing segment of protected public lands along the river, bordered on three sides by the Pisgah National Forest System. “We refer to a property such as this one as an ‘inholding,’ which means it is totally surrounded or nearly surrounded by existing conservation land,” says Andrew Kota, executive director of Foothills Conservancy. “This particular tract of land was a very important puzzle piece in the Wilson Creek conservation effort.”

Wilson Creek begins on the south side of Calloway Peak and empties into the Johns River, a major tributary of the Catawba River. In the creek’s 23-mile trip to Johns River, it drops about 5,000 feet in elevation, one of the largest elevation changes in a watershed in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains. Foothills Conservancy created a watershed conservation plan for Wilson Creek in 2006-2007, which indicated that about 7,000 acres in the watershed were privately owned. Most of the privately owned land was positioned directly along the creek itself, with less than 40 percent of the creek flowing through conserved land. Through the conservancy’s other efforts and this recent donation, now more than 75 percent of the length of Wilson Creek flows through protected land. “This is important for the future health of the river system,” says Kota. “Because the forested land around the river where it flows through conserved land will remain in a natural state forever, this ensures the quality of the water in the river and the security of the aquatic habitat and unique species it supports.”

The Conservancy hopes to transfer the property to the US Forest Service next year. The transfer is expected to provide improved recreational opportunities for the public, including fishing, swimming, mountain biking and gravel road biking. “Wilson Creek is a phenomenally popular recreation area,” says US Forest Service Grandfather District Ranger Nick Larson. “It draws a lot of people out on to the national forest to fish, play, picnic with their families. It’s slammed with visitation. There are many more people coming in to use Wilson Creek from urban areas like Charlotte, Hickory and Lenoir. It’s really exciting to make those connections to folks who might not have the same exposure to where their water comes from. This parcel will provide that space for us to get folks out in the woods who maybe otherwise wouldn’t be.”

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