With Great Biodiversity Comes Great Responsibility

BY Emily Colin

Ask the average Wilmingtonian what makes this area special and youll get a fairly predictable set of answers: The gorgeous beaches; the restaurants cultural attractions and amazing architecture of historic downtown; the laid-back lifestyle fantastic recreational opportunities friendly folks and thriving arts scene.

Heres what you might not hear: The biodiversity.

Long before surfers historic preservationists or even fishermen graced our sandy shores this region was home to an impressive variety of flora and fauna some of which like the Venus flytrap are unique to our ecosystem. Twenty-one percent of North Carolinas rare plants and animals inhabit the coastal plain and Pender Countys Shaken Creek Savanna houses four federally endangered species including the red cockaded woodpecker the only place in the state to lay claim to that distinction. You might be surprised to learn that of all the counties in North Carolina Brunswick County has the highest number of rare species with New Hanover County running a close second.

“The Lower Cape Fear region is very special for a lot of reasons ” says Kemp Burdette executive director of Cape Fear Riverwatch. “Our area is what scientists call a biological diversity hotspot meaning that there are more species of plants and animals found here than anywhere else along the eastern seaboard. Diversity is really a key word in our watershed.”

Camilla Herlevich executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust echoes this sentiment. “Biodiversity is really a good index of the richness of natural areas. This is a nationally significant area a great place for people to get out and enjoy nature. The Cape Fear region is great for conservation.”

Here in southeastern North Carolina were never far from water whether its the majestic Atlantic or meandering Town Creek. In Wilmington the Cape Fear River defines our downtown provides a gateway to the world and on the most basic level hydrates our bodies.

“Some people dont realize that in Wilmington we actually get most of our drinking water from the river. There is no better reason to protect the river than that ” Burdette says. “On a larger scale the river is a major tourist attraction. Our area depends on the beauty of the environment to attract visitors. No one ever sat around their dinner table and said We should go visit that place in NC with the dirty river. What people say is We should head to Wilmington and walk along the beautiful river that runs through downtown and maybe do some kayaking fishing eco-touring or birding. That river is our golden-egg laying goose; we really need to make sure that everything we do is a step forward in protecting and improving it.”

To paraphrase Peter Parkers Uncle Ben with great biodiversity comes great responsibility. A number of local organizations have taken on the considerable challenge of protecting our fisheries waterways and wetlands from the Green Swamp to the Black River and beyond. Heres a glimpse into the inner workings of a select three.

The Nature Conservancy
When it comes to The Nature Conservancys accomplishments the numbers speak for themselves. In total the agency has extended its stewardship to 139 581 acres in the southeastern coastal plain. A few highlights: 17 424 acres in the Green Swamp Preserve where 14 species of carnivorous plants are rooted; 1 579 acres at Lake Waccamaw the only place where eight particular species can be found; and 13 000 acres on the Black River where the oldest trees east of the Rockies huge silver-barked cypress anchor deep below the tea-colored water.

While the local office of the Nature Conservancy (www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/northcarolina/) is located right here in New Hanover County most of the areas they own or manage are inland outside the Wilmington area including the 6 500-acre preserve of Boiling Spring Lakes. We have a very close relationship with the preserve and the surrounding city of Boiling Spring Lakes says Sarah Over conservation coordinator for the Conservancy. Its a state-owned property and we have a management agreement. Like a lot of ecosystems in the region Boiling Springs is fire-dependent meaning that it needs fire for the plants and animals to exist and be healthy. Managing prescribed fire is one of the things that we do.

The Conservancy also educates the public about prescribed fire letting people know why its necessary in order for certain areas to survive and thrive. Without fire naturally prescribed in this region fuel builds up and naturally occurring fires can spread to urban regions Over says. Prescribe fires lessen that danger. Its a public safety issue.

In addition to buying and managing land in need of protection often in partnership with federal or state agencies The Nature Conservancy works closely with the Wildlife Resources Commission to relocate plants that have fallen victim to an unexpected threat poaching. Our areas phenomenal biodiversity hasnt gone unnoticed by individuals who recognize the worth of pitcher plants and Venus flytraps and during certain points in the year they are heavily sought out says Over. The Commission gives us confiscated plants and we replant them.

Interested in seeing The Nature Conservancys good work in action? Take a trip to the Green Swamp Preserve located north of Supply. Youll find a primitive public nature trail three miles roundtrip with an educational kiosk at the trailhead where you can learn all about the long leaf pines hairstreak butterflies orchids sweetbay red-cockaded woodpeckers and fox squirrels that call this 15 907-acre ecosystem home.

The North Carolina Coastal Land Trust

Since 1992 the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust (www.coastallandtrust.org/index.jsp) has worked tirelessly to protect ecologically significant tracts of land and waterways from the Virginia border to the southern tip of Brunswick County with 22 046 acres in southeastern NC including 67 acres at Airlie Gardens 104 acres of Indigo Plantation marshes and almost 40 acres at the Alderman Nature Preserve. We think of ourselves as being in the land banking business says executive director Camilla Herlevich. We facilitate protection of properties and then turn them over to local government.

Though the Land Trusts approach to conservation bears some similarities to The Nature Conservancys Herlevich points out that there are some crucial differences as well. We use the same tools but their projects are narrower she says. We have very few nationally significant projects were more likely to do things that are important to the local community and many of them are specifically geared to public access.

A good example of this type of project is the Brunswick County Nature Park on Highway 133 in Town Creek Township. The Land Trust was able to secure the 911 acres of land on which the park sits via a state Clean Water Management Trust Fund grant. They then transferred ownership to Brunswick County. Today the park features a kayak landing with a wide range of existing and upcoming amenities including a kayak launch with handicapped access picnic shelters horseback riding trails and an environmental education center. The Land Trust is also collaborating with the town of Navassa to revitalize a park in the areas Phoenix community.

In order to fulfill their mission the Land Trust has forged some unlikely partnerships. We received a big grant from Walmart to protect family farms Herlevich says. Often family farmers want to donate a portion of the land but there hasnt been a survey done of the property in years plus we have to catalogue the condition of the property first. Theres staff time surveying legal expenses the conservation easement alone is a 20-30 page document and theres $10 000-$20 000 involved in every conservation stewardship endowment so we can monitor the land in perpetuity. Other partners include the Military Growth Task Force and the Department of the Navy which in partnership with the Clean Water Trust Fund holds a conservation easement on the land surrounding Craven Countys Cherry Point air station now the Magnolia Farm Preserve.

Cape Fear Riverwatch
One year after the Coastal Land Trust opened its doors Cape Fear Riverwatch (
www.cfrw.us/)  joined the ranks of local organizations committed to preserving southeastern NCs local treasures and found themselves with a lot of work to do.

CFRW really tries to take a watershed approach to protecting the environment and improving the water quality of the Cape Fear River. That being said the Cape Fear River watershed is the largest watershed in the state covering over 9 000 square miles says Kemp Burdette. One fourth of the states counties are in the watershed as are one fourth of the states population. We have a lot to look after and logistically we just cant focus our resources on the entire watershed. We work primarily in New Hanover Brunswick Pender Duplin Sampson Bladen and Cumberland Counties.
Such comprehensive work cant be accomplished by a single organization as Burdette is quick to point out. Collaboration with other environmental groups is critical. We work closely with many of the other groups in town on projects ranging from single clean-ups to partnerships like the Cape Fear Arch a group dedicated to balancing the needs of man and nature to teaming up with groups on specific issues like the fight to stop Titan Cement from having long-lasting negative environmental impacts on our region. 

To spread their message Riverwatch hosts First Saturday Seminars each month where experts on a wide range of topics relating to the Cape Fear River hold forth. They also conduct a monthly paddling series and work with eighth graders in New Hanover and Brunswick Counties to teach them about the impact of storm water pollution on rivers like the Cape Fear.

In 2010 says Burdette Riverwatch will continue to focus on some crucial projects as well as take on some new challenges. Stopping the proposed Titan Cement kiln and mine a facility that would be the fourth largest in the entire country is an area that we will continue to focus on because we know this facility would be bad for our regions environment our health our recreation and our economy Burdette says.

Riverwatch is also intent on continuing to strengthen their Fisheries Restoration Program which was created to revitalize severely depleted populations of native fish such as shad river herring short-nosed sturgeon and striped bass. Burdette is passionate about the restoration programs success: We are seeing some real progress on this issue and construction has started on a $12-million fish passage at Lock and Dam # 1 on the Cape Fear near East Arcadia that will start to bring back our fishery to its historic levels. This project has great potential to have huge positive impacts on the regions environment economy and recreation opportunities as well as restoring part of the Lower Cape Fear River culture and heritage.

How can you make a difference?
Herlevich has a few key suggestions as to how you can help: Become a member of local conservation nonprofits. Take care of what you put into creeks streams and backyards. Clean up after your pets. Be a good steward of your own neighborhood. Watch what you eat especially fish caught from the ocean try to eat fish that are farm raised or sustainable. Support local farmers and keep our local agriculture industry alive.

Want to help?
Though The Nature Conservancy doesnt utilize a lot of volunteers helpers are sometimes needed for trail maintenance and other specific activities. Contact Sarah Over at (910) 395-5000 if youd like to lend a hand. Cape Fear Riverwatch (910-762-5606) holds clean-ups on the second Saturday of each month and also needs help manning the boathouse facility at Greenfield Lake making sure that people safely get out on the lake in canoes paddleboats and kayaks. Coastal Land Trust (910-790-0392) has select administrative and special events opportunities available for volunteers; to learn more visit