Let’s save Richmond Hill Park

Friday, May 5: They started cutting the new road into Richmond Hill Park today. It’s painful to watch something so precious and valuable cleared away so quickly, trees piled up like so many corpses withering in the sun. It breaks my heart, but I can’t just turn my back on such a unique and beautiful place within our city limits.

Richmond Hill Park sits along the French Broad River in northwest Asheville; the city has owned the property since the 1920s. It was first slated to be developed as a cemetery, then as a golf course and housing. Now the wheels are in motion to build a National Guard armory, an athletic complex and a relocated and expanded disc-golf course, while preserving the remainder of the site.

But the proposed development would severely disturb the park’s natural character, reducing both its appeal and its usefulness and destroying the peace and tranquility that attract city residents.

Today, however, Asheville has a chance to preserve much of this amazing and irreplaceable urban forest in perpetuity as a haven for people and wildlife. Your voice is needed now; read on to find out how you can help save Richmond Hill Park.

North Asheville Little League’s long-standing need for more ball fields creates a perfect opportunity for the city to proceed with a portion of the planned Wilma Dykeman RiverWay. Locating the ball fields along the river instead of in Richmond Hill Park would improve flood control while providing better and safer access for families using those facilities. And preserving more green space would enhance Asheville’s beauty and livability for all city residents.

Keeping the ball fields off Richmond Hill would also protect the surrounding neighborhood from excessive traffic. I share my neighbors’ concerns about the projected significant increases in traffic on the curvy, narrow Richmond Hill Drive, the park’s only access road, used by neighborhood residents for walking, jogging, riding bikes, walking dogs and pushing strollers. At this writing, the ball fields are on hold while the city looks for funding (and, perhaps, a new location).

The current plans also call for a 100-space parking lot and restrooms. But at least three large oak trees that add immense character and value to the park are within the designated cut area. One of these trees is roughly 200 years old and quite attractive in the landscape, though it has no value as timber. In addition, it houses a wild bee’s nest that directly benefits the park’s ecology. If the parking lot were reduced in size and parking along the new armory road or at the armory were better utilized, these trees could be spared.

Richmond Hill Park offers unique educational opportunities for people of all ages. Its accessibility to local schools makes it an ideal outdoor laboratory that could benefit students of all socioeconomic backgrounds by providing hands-on, interactive experiences in nature to complement what they learn from textbooks.

Preserving Asheville’s largest urban forest would also provide many economic benefits, supporting local businesses that cater to biking, jogging, hiking, disc golf, wildlife watching and other outdoor activities. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Americans spent roughly $32 billion on wildlife watching in 2001, and Richmond Hill Park is the best place in the city to pursue these activities.

This remarkable property is unique in many ways. It’s the only known habitat in North Carolina of Eubranchipus holmanii, a species of fairy shrimp. These small crustaceans swim on their backs, collecting food particles from the water column. They’re very sensitive to changes in water quality, and runoff from uphill construction could clog their gills with sediment, perhaps eliminating the only population in our state.

Other populations are also at risk. Disc golf is not an entirely environmentally passive sport, and parts of the new course would be built uphill of the park’s seasonal ponds. This is an extremely sensitive watershed, and the inevitable erosion would eventually make its way into the ponds — one of only four locations in the region where the marbled salamander is found. Many of these species also inhabit the upland woods around the ponds, needing uncompacted leaf litter to complete their life cycles.

The Southern nodding trillium, which is on North Carolina’s environmental watch list, grows along the trail and in seeps. The white flower hangs softly underneath the triplet of green leaves characteristic of trilliums. The seasonal creek that flows into this wetland is this species’ stronghold, and the plans for the disc-golf course call for following the creek closely on both sides.

Scientific research indicates that buffers of at least 600 feet from the edge of the ponds and 100 feet along the stream are required to protect the marbled salamander and other amphibians. Wood frogs need even larger buffers. Yet the city plans only an inadequate 150-foot buffer for this wetland. The city Parks and Recreation Department should demonstrate a sound environmental ethic by preventing adverse impacts on these sensitive species.

The park’s natural treasures also include such delicate plants as bloodroot and pink lady’s slipper. Here too one can encounter scarlet tanagers, American redstarts, vireos, woodpeckers, warblers, green herons, kingfishers and ovenbirds. But deforestation, habitat fragmentation, nest predation and other predictable negative impacts would degrade habitat quality, and many avian species would probably abandon the site, taking their striking plumage and beautiful songs with them.

Sprawl, development and population growth are putting growing pressure on the city, and to successfully cope with these challenges, we need a clear vision of wise land-use practices and smart-growth techniques. Asheville could demonstrate its commitment to the kind of environmental protection and stewardship we’re known for by protecting this wetland ecosystem and watershed. Richmond Hill Park could further benefit the city by connecting to the RiverWay via Pearson Bridge, providing miles of much-needed woodland trails. Meanwhile, keeping the disc-golf course closer to the new parking lot would mitigate the impacts while providing better access and easier maintenance.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to protect a priceless city resource. This unique and irreplaceable wooded landscape is too important for us to allow it to be logged, graded and lost forever.

So come visit the park, and then tell City Council, Parks and Recreation staff and the city manager that Asheville needs to be a true environmental steward by protecting the wetland’s watershed and preserving this precious forest intact for future generations.

[James Wood, an environmental science and biology student at UNCA, has lived on Richmond Hill for half of his six years in Asheville. He enjoys using the park for jogging, dog walking, studying, disc golf and escaping the stresses of everyday life.]


For trail maps, Web links, a petition and more information about this exceptional city park, go to Richmondhillwoods.blogspot.com.

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