This summer, another class — this being the 10th, dating back to 2005 — of Project Conserve members reached the end of their 11-month AmeriCorps terms.

Thirty-one dedicated souls each completed 1,700 hours of service to WNC, improving trails and waterways, stewarding public lands, engaging volunteers, and educating our community about the environment.

I enjoyed getting to know four of these individuals who served to protect and improve our region's natural heritage during the past year. Observing their contributions to our communities while also watching their personal and professional evolutions was particularly rewarding.

They not only made our region a better place, but their experiences and varying scopes of service grew their minds, widened their perspectives, and ultimately made them better people.

"Project Conserve gave me opportunities to learn, discover, and develop as a professional and as a person," said Caroline Ketcham, a UNC-Asheville graduate originally from New Hampshire. "There was always a chance to uncover a new interest or obtain a new skill."

Ketcham's service focused on volunteer recruitment and management, seeking to attract helping hands from the community to aid conservation projects. "I love to share the things I care about with others, especially when I can see a spark of my enthusiasm light up in someone else."

But Ketcham also developed new skills herself during her service, while simultaneously expanding her perspective about improving the environment.

“I've been called a treehugger more times than I can count,” said Ketcham, who explained that it is most often a compliment. “But I do love trees.”

So it was strange to Ketcham when she found herself in the woods donning a hard hat and holding a saw. She and several Project Conserve members took advantage of an opportunity to become chainsaw certified, successfully dropping several white pines in the process.

“It was frightening at first, but once I made my first cut, I was hooked. Had my first real taste of using a power tool turned me from a tree hugger into a killer?”

Ketcham's new skill also came with a revelation that cutting trees can be a crucial part of keeping an ecosystem vibrant and healthy.

"Nature has many strategies of its own to create disturbance in the forest, like wildfire and storms," she said. "Many species of plants and animals rely on it. While mature trees are important, so are areas of new forest which serve as habitat to provide food, nesting areas, and other benefits for wildlife."

Ketcham's lesson went beyond the knowledge of felling a tree, but taught her that when natural disturbances are interrupted because of human intervention, often people need to mimic them to keep the forest healthy. “Just like diversity of species is a good thing, so is diversity of habitat.”

Megan Rayfield, another UNC-Asheville grad, focused her 11 months of service on stewarding and improving local protected lands.

“Conservation easements protect natural heritage values like contiguous forest areas, trout waters, farms with fertile soils, and critical habitat for rare and threatened species,” she said.

Rayfield, who also holds a master's degree in environmental management from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, devoted much of her stewardship efforts to improving habitat for the bunched arrowhead, one of the rarest plants in our region.

Rayfield worked with multiple partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and N.C. Natural Heritage Program, to coordinate Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy's (CMLC) initiative to restore and improve rare mountain bogs in Flat Rock. These bogs host the unique flower, as well as other imperiled species like pitcher plants and bog turtles.

Like Ketcham, her service greatly benefited the land. “I'm pleased to know that my service not only makes a difference today, but will continue to have effects for years to come,” said Rayfield.

She, too, gained invaluable knowledge and experience along the way. “I'm thankful to have had the opportunity to learn from so many amazing conservation professionals.”

After completing her degree at Columbus State, Sarah Harden relocated from Georgia to serve with Project Conserve.

“Much of my time focused on connecting with the community,” she said. “I sought to connect people to the land, and showcase why land conservation benefits everyone.”

As part of her service, Harden launched a free, monthly speaker series. Presenters included authors, scientists, and conservationists who spoke about natural or cultural heritage — topics that reinforced a human connection to the land in WNC.

She also led hikes on conserved properties, enabling community members to experience the land up close and personal. “If visitors can get on the land to see it, touch it, and be inspired by it, I think protecting our natural resources is appreciated on a deeper level.”

And while some of her hikes may have expanded the horizons of attendees, a few of those visitors broadened her own perspective. Last winter, Harden partnered with students and parents from Atkinson Elementary School to lead a hike to the top of conserved Bearwallow Mountain.

“The way the kids think and connect ideas is really different from what I'm used to,” she recalled. “But when I was able to get them to understand, they lit up.”

One of her favorite memories was the energy of the children bounding up the trail. It was then she realized that her brief time with the students could possibly have a long-lasting impact on their young minds.

“Maybe, just maybe, something I said on the hike will inspire some of them to do great things when they get older. They could become future conservationists.”

Chelsea Rath graduated from Appalachian State University and joined Project Conserve to serve the Weed Action Coalition of the Hickory Nut Gorge (WAC-HNG), a CMLC initiative to combat invasive species that outcompete and threaten survival of native plants in the particularly biodiverse Gorge.

Presenting to school classes, community groups, and landowners about WAC-HNG's mission was a particular focus of Rath's service. This education proved to be one of the most impactful components of her AmeriCorps term.

“I know how incredibly important education is, though I never pictured myself as a teacher of any kind,” she said. “Now I'm excited to know that wherever my life may lead me, I will always be able to teach others about things which I am passionate.”

Rath's recent service led her to continue pursuing both the environment and education. In addition to recently enrolling in the N.C. Environmental Education Certification program, she committed to serving a second term through AmeriCorps Project Conserve.

These four women and their dedication to WNC this past year reminded me that their service does not terminate after eleven months. Instead, the skills they gained, lessons learned, and values that deepened will make them forever more capable and driven to serve their communities, wherever their lives may lead them.

“I may have only served at CMLC for eleven months, but it was the greatest experience of my life. I was part of an organization that was making a tangible difference in the region, not only through conservation, but in people's lives,” Sarah Harden said of her AmeriCorps service. “And in so many ways, it made a difference in mine.”

CMLC initiated Project Conserve in 2004, and since then the program has contributed more than 410,000 hours of service to WNC.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20150927/ARTICLES/150929882/0/search?p=all&tc=pgall


Last summer, I was working late at the office of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy — perhaps in an attempt to make a newspaper deadline. (I recall, as usual, I missed it.) Tom Fanslow, CMLC’s longtime Land Protection Director, showed up unexpectedly at my door.

Fanslow frequently stayed late to volunteer in the common area of our nonprofit assembly in Flat Rock. Dubbed the Ironwood Square Community Arboretum, it is the land occupying the backyard of CMLC, the Children & Family Resource Center, and the Free Clinics.

He looked like he had seen a ghost. I was worried that something was wrong. I complied with his request to follow him to the backyard.

Just watch,” Fanslow instructed me.

We stood there for about a minute in the increasing darkness of twilight.

And then all at once, the meadow, the forest, and the stream began to light up with a seemingly supernatural show of the most intensely bright and astonishingly spastic flickering of fireflies that I had ever seen.

I have seen blue ghosts in DuPont and the synchronous fireflies in the Great Smokies. These were different. The sight was surreal as Fanslow and I stood there in for some time, literally speechless, watching thousands of them.

It was one of the most magical experiences of nature that I had witnessed. It trumped standing atop mountains with nearly endless views, and it overshadowed feeling the power of water at the base of a 100-foot waterfall. Perhaps its brilliance was that it occurred in one of the most unlikely places.

I still don’t know what type of fireflies they were, nor does he. But what we do know is that they showed up for a reason.

“Build it and they will come,” I told him, referring to Fanslow’s small-scale community conservation project.

The significance in what we witnessed was doubled because we knew that experience need not be limited to only us. Rather, it could be available to anyone in the community through their own efforts of conservation in their own backyard.

Genesis

Four years ago, Fanslow was gazing at a mature dogwood tree out the window from his CMLC office. He noticed it clinging perilously to an eroded stream bank. After particularly heavy rains, he watched the raging water cutting deep channels around the base of the tree, right before his eyes.

“This is ridiculous,” he recalled. “When I talk to landowners interested in conserving their properties, I talk to them about the importance of an uncut, vegetative buffer of at least 50 feet on each side of a stream.”

Fanslow was dismayed. “Here we are a conservation organization, and we weren’t protecting the land and water in our own backyard.”

“It was first all about water quality,” said Fanslow, whose first effort was to cease mowing within 100 feet of the stream by the Square’s landscaping crew.

“Stopping the mowing allowed the nutrient cycle to regenerate in the soil,” said Fanslow. “It also finally allowed the property to begin holding water.”

Such a buffer prevents erosion of the stream banks and reduces the flow of sediment that pollutes the water. Trees and shrubs within this riparian zone keep soils intact, as well as act like sponges to absorb large quantities of water.

Streams and rivers with densely vegetated areas well beyond their banks are especially resistant to erosion, even during flooding.

Fanslow realized that not mowing simply wasn’t enough. He and volunteers planted hundreds of trees along the stream bank, including elderberry, river birch, black willow, red maple, and hazelnut, to transition the stream’s borders from a manicured lawn back to a natural forest.

After solely focusing on water quality, Fanslow expanded his mission to exercising an entire conservation ethic on the small property. “I thought ‘gosh, we could really do something here.’”

That something wouldn’t only improve the environment of the immediate land, but serve as an example of how everyone — urban, suburban, or rural — can become involved in conserving their own property.

Fanslow and volunteers began removing non-native plant species, which recreated natural communities on the site. A plethora of native species sprung up to take their place.

He supplemented them by the planting dozens and dozens of flowers, trees, and shrubs — many of which donated by volunteers.

During the next three years, Fanslow spent nearly every spare minute toiling in the Community Arboretum, constantly working to increase species diversity and add new types of habitat. In total, he has donated more than 2,000 volunteer hours to the project.

Last winter, police officers confronted him, responding to a report of a strange light behind the offices. That was just Fanslow working by headlamp, undeterred by the short daylight hours.

Once an unremarkable suburban lawn, now the Ironwood Square Community Arboretum is teeming with life. Dozens of types of trees, wide varieties of goldenrods and sedges, and even a diversity of aquatic vegetation like purple pitcher plants and cattails now flourishs.

Big impact

Fanslow and supporters have learned that this small piece of land — it measures less than two acres — can have a big impact on important pollinating insects.

Pollinators like bees have been in rapid decline worldwide, a particular concern to the conservation and agricultural communities.

“One out of every three mouthfuls of food was pollinated,” explained Fanslow. “The Arboretum now gives insects a place to pollinate in a landscape where their opportunities to do so are far and few between.”

To the untrained eye, it may look unkempt.

“Someone suggested that it needed bush hogged,” Fanslow said, laughing.

Rather, the Community Arboretum features at least three separate habitats: a meadow, a recovering forest, and multiple pocket wetlands. It is as nature is supposed to look without human intervention.

“Consider that before we started, there were seven or eight species that could be found on this property. Now there are more than 300 species,” he said.

Fanslow is especially excited by two species of salamanders that weren’t seen previously but now reside in the stream.

“They are common species, but here in this suburban environment that is cut off from other natural areas, they’re quite uncommon. That’s something.

“We have elements of the wild kingdom here. We don’t have deer, turkey, or bear. But we have wild creatures in the form of insects, birds, and amphibians — which keep increasing with the different types of plants and habitats that arise.

“That’s the thing about this place. It’s small but there is a lot going on,” said Fanslow, who hopes that visitors not just from the nearby offices but the entire community — including students and teachers from local schools — will stop by to observe the surprising abundance and complexity of nature on a small scale.

“I want visitors to go slow and pay attention to notice everything that is going on,” he said. “If you do, you’ll hear the catbird call ‘jowee, jowee’ or you’ll see the hummingbirds watching you.”

“You may just notice all the different colors and how the sunlight hits something at a different time of day. And you don’t have to go all the way to the national forest or park to see those. They’re right here.”

Fanslow explained that the Community Arboretum is a different way of thinking about conservation. “Small parcels — wherever they are — can have a big impact on the environment. All landowners can be involved in conservation.”

Recalling the glittering of those fireflies that summer evening, he smiled introspectively.

“We can literally achieve conservation in our backyard.”

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20150830/ARTICLES/150829832/0/search?p=all&tc=pgall


Two months ago, this column took a look back at the origins of one of our region's beloved natural gems, DuPont State Recreational Forest. While it was a story told by many before, I was intrigued to learn the lesser-known tale of how a small local land conservancy played an instrumental role in bringing it to fruition.

But the story didn't end there. The relationship between that little land trust — then called the Natural Heritage Inventory of Henderson County — and the forest was just getting started. Nearly two decades later, DuPont Forest continues to benefit.

The involvement of that land trust — now Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) — in DuPont's creation caused a collateral effect. "Natural communities and rare species don't stop at the county lines," explained state Rep. Chuck McGrady, the father of CMLC's bond to DuPont and longtime forest champion.

Realizing that the natural heritage it sought to protect extended into and beyond DuPont, the organization decided to expand its scope of land protection to include Transylvania County. Since then, conserving the natural heritage surrounding the forest — and in many cases within it — has been one of its top priorities.

Only a few years after the establishment of the state forest, CMLC partnered with the Sylvan Habitat neighborhood south of Brevard to place a conservation easement on land immediately adjacent to DuPont. The easement will forever keep natural 220 acres on the western border of the forest.

"Conservation easements bordering DuPont benefit the forest in multiple ways," said Tom Fanslow, CMLC land protection director.

These benefits include preventing development from encroaching on its boundary; preservation of unbroken natural land for habitat and migration of wildlife; and keeping unspoiled the scenic views enjoyed by visitors from within the forest.

Don and Mary Wauchope also sought CMLC's help to support the forest, donating a conservation easement on 20 acres of their Transylvania property in 2005. The easement, near Cascade Lake, will serve as another forever-natural buffer on DuPont's western border.

Perhaps of greatest magnitude in buffering the forest was CMLC's partnership with the Schenck family in 2006. That year, 2,600 acres of the property hosting the Green River Preserve summer camp were entered into a permanent conservation easement.

Green River Preserve's protected lands — nearly a quarter of the size of DuPont itself — share a seven-mile boundary with the forest to its south. Teeming with natural significance like rare species of plants and animals, it also hosts the headwaters of the Green River, some of which begin on boundary with the forest along the Eastern Continental Divide.

"We are delighted that this land will always remain natural — as we have always known it and as those who came before us cherished it," said Sandy Schenck, Green River Preserve landowner and camp director. "It can forever be a place where young minds can develop an appreciation for the natural world."

That same year, James and Rose Buckner boosted DuPont's size by working with CMLC and the N.C. Forest Service to add 118 acres to the Forest. This acquisition made possible the linkage of two previously separated parcels of DuPont Forest near Old CCC Road in Henderson County.

Twice more CMLC facilitated the expansion of DuPont. In 2009, the Forest grew by 17 acres when property adjacent to the south was conveyed to the N.C. Forest Service by the Terra Nova Center in Cedar Mountain. Terra Nova, a nondenominational spiritual retreat center surrounding charming Lake Reasonover, then buffered DuPont in 2011 by making its natural lands permanent via a conservation easement on 255 acres along the forest's southern boundary.

In 2012, CMLC teamed up with private conservation partner Tom Oreck to add 65 more acres to DuPont on Stone Mountain. The Henderson County tract off Old CCC Road hosted rare green salamanders and scenic rock outcroppings that are now part of the Forest.

"It was a property that needed to belong to DuPont State Forest," said Oreck. "I'm excited that I was able to do something good for the community."

These projects that buffered or grew DuPont State Recreational Forest were made possible by funding from North Carolina's Clean Water Management Trust Fund, Natural Heritage Trust Fund and contributions from private donors. Most of all, it took the generosity of private landowners seeking to better DuPont by protecting their properties and the N.C. Forest Service's steadfast stewardship of the forest.

Recently, CMLC and partners have been exploring the possibility of linking DuPont to the Mountain Bridge Wilderness in South Carolina via a recreational trail through the acquisition of a publicly accessible conservation corridor. Such a connection — dubbed "the missing link" — would make possible the concept of the Southern Appalachian Loop Trail.

Called "SALT" for short, the route could create a nearly contiguous connection of trails from DuPont Forest to venerable long-distance paths like the Foothills Trail, Bartram Trail and Appalachian Trail.

Jeff Jennings, a former DuPont Corp. employee and one of the forest's first conservation champions, is glad that supporting that state forest has been an enduring legacy for the land trust.

"CMLC has exceeded my expectations in helping to build the forest as well as protect its borders," Jennings said. "They played a significant role in making the forest a reality, and they have only made it better since," he added. "I have no doubt that they'll keep it up."

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20150726/ARTICLES/150729924/0/search?p=all&tc=pgall


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