Months of debate, studies and discussion about where Rutherford Electric Membership Corporation should build 2.5 miles of power lines have come to a halt: In January, REMC filed a 25-page request for an easement that would let the utility build power lines through Box Creek Wilderness, a 5,100-acre forest tract that straddles the county line between Rutherford and McDowell. However, local groups and the property owner have launched a campaign against the request, including a petition, Facebook page and video (see below).
Box Creek is the third-largest privately held forest tract in Rutherford and McDowell counties and is owned by Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Cary-based Epic Games. He acquired the title back in 2011 after a mountain development concept failed to happen on the same parcel of land. The area is home to an abundance of rare and imperiled species — including many globally rare plants, and a crayfish found nowhere else on Earth.
Last June, the property became North Carolina’s largest private Registered Natural Heritage Area (RNHA) out of 337 total RNHAs, 121 of which are protected by private landowners. It is estimated that the Box Creek Wilderness is home to 18 globally rare natural communities. However, long before it was purchased by Sweeney, the area was first named a Significant Natural Heritage Area back in 2004.
Last fall Sweeney and the REMC began talking about a transmission line that the utility says it needs to supply power to approximately 1,900 homes, businesses and other members in its service area in McDowell County. “Western North Carolina is growing and changing, and we have to provide infrastructure for people who live in this area. We can’t go back to using kerosene lamps,” says Joe Joplin, REMC’s general manager.
Mindful of the environmental value of the property, Joplin says that REMC “exhausted an extensive study of alternatives,” by hiring independent consultants and firms to do environmental and archeological reviews, and an electrical engineering firm to do its own independent assessment. The results yielded no better route for the line, he reports. “There’s no room to work line up through there. It’s not a feasible route,” says Joplin.
Sweeney and the Durham-based Unique Places group disagree. A study conducted by Unique Places and Mcgavran Engineering P.C. found an alternative: a route that runs northwest of the property, primarily along Vein Mountain Road and an existing REMC power line and with three detours around rural clusters of homes. The study authors concluded: “It is also apparent that Alternative 1, 1A or 2 would be preferable to REMC’s Preferred Route from an ecological perspective. The ecological toll that REMC’s Preferred Route would exact upon Box Creek Wilderness is difficult to calculate to a dollar figure, but from the analysis and literature review, it is clear that the impact would be extensive, long term and irreparable. This fact, compounded by the determination that REMC’s Preferred Route would cost nearly twice that of Alternatives 1 and 1A, should illustrate to REMC that choosing another alternative route that does not go through Box Creek Wilderness will result in lower financial and environmental costs.”
A video uploaded last week and a campaign launched earlier today, echoed the conclusion that there are cheeper and easier routes for these power lines. It is a message that the property owner shares. “I’m going to do everything I can to protect this beautiful, unique ecosystem from the proposed devastation,” Sweeney says in a press release from the nonprofit (see the full release below). “This is a State Natural Heritage Area with over 100 identified rare species of plants and animals, and REMC’s plan to chop it in half with a utility line is madness.”
But Joplin says that’s an exaggeration. “What we’re asking for 30 acres right of way, and a total of 12 acres that run along an existing logging road,” he says.
Joplin, however, also tells Xpress that care would be taken when it comes to the environmental concerns. “The property generally follows along existing logging roads. Whenever we we will clear the trees, we will do a ground cover to make sure everything comes back in its natural state — back in grasses and briars and all kinds of things,” he explains. “Animals, birds, quail and deer, use this area — they flourish in this area. Really, we’re just converting it [the logging roads] from one use to the other.”
Unique Places does not see it that way. The group has taken up a petition of its own: Get 1,000 signatures by the end of March that urge REMC to consider an alternative route.
Joplin, who has been general manager of REMC since 2004, has heard arguments for these different routes before. He urges people to consider the community impact, too, when thinking about the proposed route through Box Creek Wilderness. “I hate it and I’m sorry, but I feel strongly that people in Rutherford, rural McDowell, public schools, churches and the elderly deserve quality electric service and realiable electric service,” he says. “We feel like our members deserve electrical service. It’s something that we’ve got to do.”
Here is the full press release on the matter from Box Creek Wilderness and Unique Places:
ASHEVILLE, N.C.)—Rutherford Electric Membership Corp., (REMC) has filed a petition in Rutherford County Superior Court to condemn property for an easement through the Box Creek Wilderness, North Carolina’s largest private registered Significant Natural Heritage Area.
The petition seeks a 100-foot wide easement for a power line that would destroy more than two and a half miles of forestland. Ecological damage from the power line would spread to over 700 acres, degrading rare natural communities and the rare species that depend on them, impacting up to six miles of streams, and dividing a major wildlife corridor in two.
In addition, a power line built within this rugged terrain may cost upwards of $2.5 million more in construction, engineering, maintenance and acquisition costs than using alternative routes along existing right-of-ways. Those costs will be borne by REMC’s customers, the member-owners of the co-op utility.
The Box Creek Wilderness team is committed to protecting these 5,800 acres of ecologically extraordinary land—including taking legal action.
“I’m going to do everything I can to protect this beautiful, unique ecosystem from the proposed devastation,” said property owner Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Cary-based Epic Games. “This is a State Natural Heritage Area with over 100 identified rare species of plants and animals, and REMC’s plan to chop it in half with a utility line is madness. ”
Last July, Sweeney signed a voluntary registry with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), to further demonstrate his commitment to the conservation of the Box Creek Wilderness.
“There’s not enough dollars in the government sector to save all these chunks of land,” Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina Executive Director Susie Hamrick Jones told the Asheville Citizen-Times in September. “We need 1,000 Tim Sweeneys.”
An ongoing biodiversity and wildlife habitat assessment conducted in cooperation with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program shows that the Box Creek Wilderness Area is one of the top 75 Significant Natural Heritage Areas (SNHAs) in the state, out of more than 3,000 such designated Areas, in terms of rare species and community types found there.
Box Creek Wilderness’s ecological inventory team has so far identified 18 rare or exemplary vegetation communities, and more than 100 North Carolina Natural Heritage Program Rare and Watch List species.
Sweeney is assisted in his fight to protect the Box Creek Wilderness by Durham-based Unique Places LLC, which provides expertise to landowners in matters of conservation planning, land stewardship, and the protection of natural and cultural resources.
Sweeney and Unique Places are aided in their land management and restoration efforts by a team of contributors in Western North Carolina, including an engineering firm, conservation non-profits, government programs, and colleges and universities. Among these teammates are BioGeoCreations, a GIS and cartography company; an environmental restoration and management team, Mountains-to-Sea Ecological; UNC Asheville; North Carolina Herpetological Society; Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina; and North American Land Trust.
Together, the Box Creek Wilderness team is committed to the permanent protection of this special place.
For more information about the Box Creek Wilderness and the campaign to protect it, contact: Jeff Fisher, Unique Places, LLC: (919)632-0161 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.boxcreekwilderness.com for a detailed video, additional photos of the site, a petition and further calls to action.
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