By Carolyn Schweitz
As the tourism industry rises in Western North Carolina, Morganton and Burke County have rebranded as “Nature’s Playground.” Indeed, the beauty of Burke County is worth preserving, and that is exactly what Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina seeks to do. Foothills Conservancy recently secured a purchase option for a 660-acre property in the Oak Hill community just outside of Morganton. “This is one of the last remaining large and intact areas in Oak Hill,” says Andrew Kota, executive director of Foothills Conservancy. “Setting aside open space for the public and the community in such close proximity to downtown Morganton will solidify outdoor opportunities for residents and will be there for future generations to come.”
The Oak Hill site is rich in history. The Catawba Indians populated the area, and archeological remains of their lives can be found there. For this reason, the project to preserve the space has earned endorsement from Dr. David Moore from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Warren Wilson College. “The project holds tremendous potential,” says Moore. “I look forward to working with Foothills Conservancy towards an exciting and important public archaeology program.” Additionally, there is rich agricultural soil, with potential for future small-scale, community farming, and an impaired stream, Canoe Creek, whose care could improve water quality.
The vision for the project is to develop the land into a community park and forest. The site is within a mile of three public schools: Oak Hill Elementary, Table Rock Middle School and Freedom High School. The preservation of the land can offer a natural space with boundless education opportunities for all three schools. Larry Putnam, Burke County school superintendent, endorses the project’s potential to offer education and physical activity alternatives for his students. “This site would allow for deeper learning and more frequent environmental education experience,” says Putnam. The park could also offer camping, bird-watching and a network of new hiking and mountain biking trails with the possibility of connecting to the Fonta Flora State Trail, the Overmountain Victory Trail and the City of Morganton Greenway system.
Foothills Conservancy must raise a total of $3 million to preserve the land. They met their first funding benchmark of $580,800 at the end of May, but continue to seek support from potential investors. The purchase is time sensitive, expiring later in 2019, and Foothills Conservancy is working hard towards securing grants and gifts from donors to make the dream of preserving this property a reality. Although full realization of this vision will take time, many community members have already spoken out in support. The community continues to advocate for the development and preservation of the property.
Foothills Conservancy has a volunteer program for those who wish to get involved with the process of creating the park space. They urge those who want to have their voices heard on the project to reach out to elected officials on both the local and state levels or to Morganton and Burke County administration and staff, to submit letters to Morganton’s The News Herald, to talk with neighbors or to write letters of support.
“We hope that the community will continue to support our effort to acquire the property and save it from development, and then participate in the transition of the property to a park preserve,” says Kota. “It is crucial to have pockets of natural areas for people to be in nature, especially when those places can be easily accessed.”