Shared from the 3/11/2018 Gaston Gazette eEdition

Preserving our natural resources

Carolina Lands Conservancy protects habitat, ensures water quality


Paddlers enjoy the South Fork River beside Goat Island in Cramerton. [NANCY PIERCE/SPECIAL TO THE GASTON GAZETTE.]


Catawba Lands Conservancy Marketing and Communications Director Allie Schwartz, left, Executive Director Tom Okel, center, listen as Carolina Thread Trail Community Coordinator Bret Baronak answers questions during their interview with The Gaston Gazette. [JOHN CLARK/THE GASTON GAZETTE]


A horse pasture at Laurel Hill in Gaston County. [CHARLOTTE KIDD/SPECIAL TO THE GAZETTE.]


Snow covers the Northbrook and Spencer Mountain Wetland on Feb. 24, 2015. [NANCY PIERCE/SPECIAL TO THE GASTON GAZETTE]


The South Fork Trail between McAdenville and Lowell.



The bridge to Goat Island in Cramerton.


The Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) recently protected permanently 223 acres in Lincoln and Gaston counties. The CLC preserved 98 acres of farmland in northwestern Gaston County, known as the Eaker Farm, under a conservation easement agreement. Preservation of the area protects agricultural land and 3,400 linear feet along the southern bank of Indian Creek. In Lincoln County, the CLC worked with George and Barbara Clark to conserve their 125-acre property along Anderson and Killian creeks. Protecting the property helps maintain the water quality of both creeks and also preserve habitat for wildlife.

As part of our Gaston Talks continuing series, three representatives from the CLC — Executive Director Tom Okel, Carolina Thread Trail Coordinator Bret Baronak, and Marketing and Communications Director Allie Schwartz sat down with Gazette staff writer Bill Poteat to talk about the role the organization plays and the importance of conserving natural resources, particularly as they relate to water quality.

GAZETTE: Tell us a little bit about the history and the purpose of the Catawba Lands Conservancy.

OKEL: Our organization is about 26 years old, and it was really started as a very grass-roots organization by some people who lived on Mountain Island Lake. This was when residential development first started occurring there, and that grew into a concern for the entire Catawba River basin which provides the water supply for all of Mecklenburg County and much of Gaston County. There was concern about both water quality and animal habitat. That led to the establishment of the Cowan's Ford Nature Preserve, 800 acres, which is critical to the protection of Mountain Island Lake. They soon realized that there were similar areas where similar work was needed. So, the Land Conservancy was established, and we have protected about 16,000 acres over the last 26 years. We work to protect water quality and wildlife habitat. We work with farmers, and of course, we work to provide access to nature via the Carolina Thread Trail, which is our largest on-going project.

GAZETTE: When you say that you have preserved 16,000 acres, do you mean that you have purchased 16,000 acres or that you have worked out agreements as to how that land will be used?

OKEL: What this means is that this land will never be developed. It will remain in its natural state. And that can be either through a conservation easement, where the land is owned by private individuals who have conveyed to us the development rights, or it can be land that we own. About a third of the property we actually own and about two-thirds of it is through conservation easements. That is in the deed, so that even if the land changes hands, we come with it, and we still control the development rights.

GAZETTE: How important is the preservation of wildlife habitat to the purpose of the CLC?

OKEL: Wildlife habitat is very important and it's a big part of what we do. With the expanding urban core that we have in the Charlotte metro, that tends to break up the natural corridors along which wildlife move. Our big focus is on critical mass for wildlife. That's why rather than focusing on smaller properties, we concentrate on 14 specific areas involving thousands of acres to provide the sort of continuous space that wildlife need. Of our 16,000 acres, more than 5,000 of them are in Gaston County. We have some very large conservation areas that are not contiguous, but they are connected through power line easements.

GAZETTE: Where do you all get your funding to either purchase or get the easements for these pieces of property?

OKEL: We get our funding from three broad areas. One is simply people who care about our region and our quality of life and what it will be like after we're gone. So, we have members who support our organization. Most land that we acquire has some degree of ownerdonation intents. And there are funding sources available. Probably the biggest and the one that has been used the most here in Gaston County is the Clean Water Management Trust Fund which is a North Carolina governmentrun trust fund that is designed to protect water quality.

GAZETTE: How does the Carolina Thread Trail fit in with the concepts of conservation and land preservation?

BARONAK: Well, the trail will have a 15-county footprint and eventually encompass nearly 1,600 miles of trail. We're at a little more than 260 right now. The origins of the trail came from the idea that we have all of these beautiful, preserved places, but how do people get in there and appreciate them and explore them? People can get in there, use the trails, appreciate nature, and spread the word about how beautiful these places are. It really provides momentum for more of this kind of work to be done to preserve our natural spaces.

Trails are low impact. You're not cutting down a lot of trees for trails. It allows people to appreciate natural spaces, but is consistent with the goal of preserving the environment.

GAZETTE: How much do you work with other agencies, municipalities, planning boards in bringing the trail to reality?

BARONAK: That is a large majority of the work that I do, coordinating with our partners. It takes a whole realm of people to make a trail happen. You have to have design and planning and fundraising and work. It is a partnership effort. Getting the right people to the table is really the recipe for success and having those champions in the community. The Kings Mountain Gateway Trail is a great example of this. One of the more interesting things in the works for Gaston County is a trail extending from Cramerton, all the way up through McAdenville and Lowell, right up to Spencer's Mountain. That will be about a nine-mile trail, and right now we have about 2.5 miles of it on the ground.

There is definitely a pattern. When a new trail segment is established, the local community definitely takes pride in ownership of it. And then people want to know, when will there be more? When will it be connected to the next segment?

GAZETTE: How do you spread the word about all of these good things going on?

Schwartz: We do everything from social media to press releases to relying upon our members to help get our message out there. The members tell why they support us. Why their friends should support us. A lot of folks are really excited about the Thread Trail and it all adds up to a lot of positive energy.

GAZETTE: Are you optimistic about the future of the region and the ability to balance growth with conservation?

OKEL: I am very optimistic. This is something that everybody cares about. A sustainable supply of fresh water is essential. It simply has to be done.

More information about the Catawba Lands Conservancy may be obtained at More information about the Carolina Thread Mail may be obtained at .

Tips for keeping groundwater clean

As officials with the Catawba Lands Conservancy point out, protecting the region's water supply is everyone's responsibility. The Natural Resources Defense Council offers these tips for what we can all do to help keep our local water supply clean.

1. Take a hard look at your outdoor surfaces.

Stormwater flows across hard materials, like concrete or asphalt, and into storm drains — bringing all the dirty stuff it picked up along the way. Stop these pollution streams on your own property by using gravel, paver stones, wood, or other porous materials whenever possible. If a hard surface is unavoidable (say, in the case of a driveway), dig a shallow trench along the border and add plants or gravel to catch the runoff before it travels too far.

2. Remember, your toilet is not a trash can.

Never flush nondegradable products, like baby wipes or plastic tampon applicators. They can throw a huge wrench into the sewage treatment process and wind up littering beaches and water. (Who wants to walk along a beach and step in their own garbage?) And never dump old pills in the toilet, either. Instead, bring them to a local pharmacy that has a take-back program.

3. And neither is your sink.

Don't let paint, used oil, chemical cleaners, or other questionable household products go down the drain. These items contain toxic ingredients (think sodium hypochlorite, ammonia, formaldehyde) we don't want in our water supply. To find out about hazardous-waste collection days and facilities, search by product on Earth911 or contact your local sanitation, public works, or environmental health department.

4. Pick up after Fido.

You're not just being a good neighbor. Scooping up pet waste keeps that bacteria-laden waste (literally) from running into storm drains and water supplies. The most practical of the planet-friendly disposal methods is to tie it in a recycledplastic pet-waste bag and throw it in the trash, but check your local ordinances.

5. Be a more careful car owner.

Good maintenance can reduce the leaking of oil, coolant, antifreeze, and other nasty liquids that are carried by rainwater down driveways or through parking lots and then seep into groundwater supplies. Go a step further by always choosing a car wash over hosing down your ride yourself. The pros are required to drain their wastewater into sewer systems, where the water is treated for all the bad stuff before being discharged. Many even recycle that water.

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