The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Natural Heritage Program’s (NHP) Advisory Committee has recommended that the State enter into a Registry agreement with the landowner of the privately held 3,300-acre Box Creek Wilderness, a State-designated Significant Natural Heritage Area (SNHA) on the Rutherford-McDowell county line.
NHP identifies a Significant Natural Heritage Area as an area of land or water that is important to conserve in order to protect the State's biodiversity. Voluntary SNHA Registry agreements recognize the landowner's commitment to ecological conservation of the area.
The forested and undeveloped Box Creek Wilderness is the third largest privately held tract in Rutherford and McDowell counties and is owned by Tim Sweeney, a nature conservationist who is the Founder/CEO of Epic Games in Cary, North Carolina. The Box Creek Wilderness Natural Heritage Area ranks among the top 75 Significant Natural Heritage Areas in North Carolina in terms of rare species according to a recently completed ecological and wildlife habitat assessment done in cooperation with the NHP.
Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, the regional land trust partner on the project, has long sought protection for the parcel, which ranks as a high protection priority within the conservancy’s South Mountains to Blue Ridge Mountains Corridor Focus Area.
The Box Creek Wilderness is one of a chain of large natural areas linking the two mountain ranges across the intervening 20 miles. Given its size and location, it serves as an ecological bridge between the mountain and piedmont eco-regions. As a result, the site harbors a wide breadth of species and serves as a critical, unfragmented corridor for migratory animals.
“This tract is a critical stepping stone in a wildlife corridor connecting the extensive state park and game lands in the South Mountains to the protected lands along the Blue Ridge escarpment in Pisgah National Forest near Old Fort and within and around Chimney Rock State Park,” explained Susie Hamrick Jones, Foothills Conservancy’s executive director.
“Government and non-profit funds cannot permanently protect all of North Carolina’s important natural areas,” Jones said. “Agreements like this with private, conservation-minded landowners are crucial to achieving meaningful protection of our state’s most important natural areas, and we applaud Mr. Sweeney’s decision to conserve this special place.”
The land’s high ecological and conservation value is based on a wealth of critical natural resources that have been documented by a team of ecologists and biologists led by Unique Places, a Durham-based conservation consulting and land management company that is coordinating assessment and enhancement activities on the tract.
Perennial streams lace the tract, including Box Creek, a primary tributary of the Second Broad River, which supplies drinking water to several Rutherford County towns before joining the Broad River as it flows into South Carolina.
According to Box Creek Wilderness’ independent ecologists Kevin Caldwell and Lloyd Raleigh, the parcel contains more than 30 miles of perennial streams and at least 90 low elevation seeps, 20 currently identified rare or exemplary vegetation communities, and more than 80 NHP Rare and Watch List Species.
In conjunction with the Foothills Conservancy and the American Chestnut Foundation, Unique Places is implementing a stewardship strategy for the protection and enhancement of the Box Creek Wilderness. This includes prescribed burns, treatment of the Hemlock trees for Woolly Adelgid and restoration of the American Chestnut with legacy trees developed by the American Chestnut Foundation.
For information about the Box Creek Wilderness, the stewardship activities led by Unique Places, and additional photos and videos of the site, see www.boxcreekwilderness.com.
A nationally accredited, non-profit land trust based in Morganton, Foothills Conservancy cooperates with landowners and public and private conservation partners to preserve and protect important natural areas and open spaces of the eastern Blue Ridge Mountains and their foothills in eight counties: Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Cleveland, Lincoln, McDowell and Rutherford – and in the upper basins of three major rivers: the Broad, Catawba and Yadkin. Since 1995, Foothills Conservancy has protected more than 46,000 acres as public parks, wildlife lands and forests; conservancy-owned preserves; and through conservation agreements with the private owners of significant farms and forest lands.
To learn more about Foothills Conservancy’s conservation programs, including protection options for private landowners, visit www.foothillsconservancy.org or call 828-437-9930.