Wildlife Refuge is something special

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 15, 2003

WINDSOR – When Jeff Horton goes to work, stress is forgotten as he walks on Roanoke River bottomland under 600-year-old cypress trees and watches bald eagles swoop down to pluck lunch from the muddy, brown water.

Horton is a steward of the Roanoke River Project in The Nature Conservancy, an agency formed nationally in 1951 to preserve plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on earth by protecting lands and waters they need to survive. The Conservancy motto is &uot;Saving the Last Great Places on Earth&uot; and some of those great places have been found in eastern North Carolina.

The Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina Chapter works with the National Heritage Program (in the State Office of Conservation and Community Affairs) to identify and inventory unique natural areas and establish protection priorities based on Heritage Program’s information.

The Chapter began its efforts to preserve Roanoke River ecosystem in the late seventies when Union Camp Corporation donated 176 acres of adjoining land. Since then the Chapter has protected 60,000 acres on the lower Roanoke River, including lands owned/managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge and by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission and land owned by the Conservancy.

The Conservancy protects lands through acquisition by gift or purchase and by using conservation easements, leases and voluntary management agreements with landowners. Financial support comes from membership dues, foundations, grants and charitable contributions. Land protection also comes from four trust funds, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, National Heritage Trust Fund, Farmland Preservation Trust Fund and Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, all established by the General Assembly.

The North Carolina Chapter has more than 26,000 members who are passionate about the environment and is led by a board of governors composed of business, scientific, educational and civic leaders across the state. The Nature Conservancy is a private, non-profit 501C3 organization, &uot;which simply means that we are a charitable organization and people can make tax-deductible contributions to what we do,&uot; Horton explained.

Many properties are acquired by the Conservancy and transferred to government agencies such as NC Wildlife Resources Commission, NC Division of Parks and Recreation and others. Then the agencies pay the Chapter for protection costs. These joint efforts have allowed the Chapter to protect about 600,000 acres of wild land in this state. The Chapter owns and manages 60 preserves with more than 116,000 acres statewide.

The Roanoke River ecosystem, in Bertie, Halifax, Martin, Northampton and Washington Counties, is just one prime example of land to be preserved. The river begins from an unpretentious spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and grows stronger as it makes a 400-mile journey to Albemarle Sound, sending fingers of water into swamps and marshes that border its path. Its floodplain has been called the most extensive, un-fragmented bottomland hardwood ecosystem in the mid-Atlantic.

The region has bald cypress and water tupelo swamp forests, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, black bear, river otter, bobcat, 214 bird species (including 88 breeding species and 44 of those are neotropical migrants), wintering waterfowl such as mallard and black duck, wood duck, 400 species of moths and butterflies, land birds (including the bald eagle, water thrush, American redstart, Kentucky warbler, red-eyed and yellow-throated vieros), great crested and Acadian flycatchers, six species of woodpecker, barn owls, red-shouldered hawks, great blue herons, Swainson’s and cerulean warblers and Mississippi kite.

Public and private groups have helped to protect the river corridor. In 1989, the Conservancy purchased 10,626 acres in Bertie and Martin Counties from Georgia-Pacific Corporation to create the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge. In 1994, Georgia-Pacific and the Conservancy entered an agreement to jointly manage and protect more than 21,000 acres bordering the river.

The Roanoke River lands include 176 acres in Camassia Slopes Preserve in Northampton County; Devil’s Gut Preserve, 1,046 acres in Martin County; and Larkspur Ridge Preserve, 97 acres in Halifax County.

Other Conservancy projects in northeastern North Carolina include Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, 152,195 acres in Dare and Hyde Counties; Buckridge Coastal Reserve, 17,734 acres in Tyrrell County; Chowan Swamp Game Land, 10,966 acres in Gate County; Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, 38,000 acres in Camden, Gates and Pasquotank Counties; Merchants Millpond State Park, 3,233 acres in Gates County; North River Game Land, 10,925 acres in Camden and Currituck Counties.

&uot;We concentrate mostly now around the Roanoke River in Bertie, Martin, Northampton and Halifax Counties, but we have an interest in Gates, Chowan and Hertford Counties and the Chowan River is a priority area for us,&uot; said Horton.

&uot;We can’t protect the whole world, although we certainly want to protect all the critters we can. We protect the last of the least and best of the rest, but we need to focus our priorities and we do that by coming up with inventories, working with the Heritage Program. Based on results of those inventories, we identify the hot spots. Where are the areas that are very important, that are very rich in biological diversity or life? When we find those spots, The Nature Conservancy can justify its activity to put resources on the ground to acquire the land, to work with landowners and look at protection activities.

&uot;Our interest in working with private landowners is based on these inventories and ongoing information we gave gathered since the 1980s. Some of the new areas we are working with now come from Plum Creek Corporation Timber Company. We had conservation easements and management agreements on more than 23,000 acres of land…Then 2,609 acres in Pollock’s Ferry Tract in Halifax County came up for sale and we ended up purchasing the whole thing. We haven’t even done a press release on this.

&uot;The Roanoke River clearly shapes the destiny of the wild lands and critters along this whole corridor. The Army Corps of Engineers in 1940 as the result of the big flood, and as a result of perfectly legitimate community support, constructed the dam and reservoirs upstream to prevent flooding. One result of the reservoirs is a change in the way water flows downstream. We work with the Army Corps of Engineers and Dominion Resources, the folks that run the reservoirs, to help them understand what the needs are to help keep the fish alive and keep turkeys and striped bass reproducing downstream. We continue working to protect lands downstream and at the same time find ourselves working hard to ensure that the way the water flows downstream will protect the long-term viability of all these different plants and animals. This year has been an exceptional year and may actually bring to head a lot of past issues about the way reservoirs are operated.&uot;

In 1940 maximum flow of Roanoke River was 260,000 cubic feet of water per second passing down through Roanoke Rapids, Plymouth and Williamston. On an average day now there are 8,000 cubic feet per second. In rainy seasons such as the one experienced in 2003, average flow is 12,000-15,000 cubic feet per second.

Charts measuring flow since 1912 show peaks and valleys. Low-flow times allowed turkeys and other nesting fowl to raise young and have food as fresh new growth appeared on the swamp floor. Since the dam has been built, there are peaks, but plateaus instead of valleys show there are many seasons when wildlife and wildfowl have no time to re-grow or reproduce.

Horton emphasized that The Nature Conservancy is not interested in destruction of the dam or reservoirs that would allow Mother Nature to again flood homes and farms. But he said there is a way to manage today’s wetlands with optimum life for both plants and wildlife.

There are many nature projects underway by various local agencies and number of visitors increased 30 percent last year. One project especially popular is the Roanoke River Paddle Trail and Camping System, a joint project with Roanoke River Partners and others which allows canoeists to paddle any part of more than 200 miles of interconnected waterways. Camping is offered at traditional sites or on elevated platforms in swampy downstream sections. Each platform provides space for up to six campers and tents. Builders were not sure people would get excited about spending nights in the swamp with moccasins, but the platforms have been in great demand by paddlers from several states. More information is available at www.roanokeriverpartners.org or by calling 252-794-2793. The same number can be used to make camping reservations.

Horton said Nature Conservancy is always looking for members; for people who would like to partner or donate land; and especially for volunteers to do everything from filing or talking with visitors to working outdoors. Anyone who is interested in either of the three areas should call the steward at 252-794-1818. Email address for the local office at 117 Coulbourn Lumber Company Road in Windsor is jhorton@tnc.org.

Horton is passionate about his life’s work and says he has been lucky enough to work in Alaska and with the Peace Corps at Bolivia in South America. He says what visitors find on Roanoke River can compare with anyplace he has ever been.

&uot;Anyone who has the opportunity to paddle Roanoke River will know they are seeing something special,&uot; he said.