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Foothills Conservancy receives grant for conservation of Wildacres Retreat

A $1 million grant from North Carolina's Clean Water Management Trust Fund recently awarded to Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina brings the 1,100-acre Wildacres Retreat one step closer to permanent protection. The critical tract lies along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Little Switzerland, N.C.
Wildacres Retreat is a nonprofit conference center governed by a board of directors that offers its facilities and surrounding woodlands to nonprofit groups for educational and cultural programming, and for board and staff retreats.
The Wildacres property shares more than a mile of boundary with the National Park Service's Blue Ridge Parkway, including the Deer Lick Gap Overlook, and is surrounded on other sides by Pisgah National Forest. Conserving Wildacres will preserve short-range and distant views of the property and help protect the integrity of the Parkway.
"The natural setting at Wildacres provides a physical buffer from everyday life that enables visitors to focus on their purpose, be it education, art, organizational planning, or something else," said Philip Blumenthal, director and board president of Wildacres. "When groups come here, one of the most important aspects of them having a successful visit is the feeling that they've gotten away from their normal routine. This place provides an atmosphere that is conducive to learning and growing, and our board is in full support of placing the land in a conservation easement to help ensure that the Wildacres experience is able to continue. We know that Foothills Conservancy and Conservation Trust for North Carolina have the expertise to ensure that the easement properly conserves the property in perpetuity."
Foothills Conservancy, the regional land trust serving McDowell County, and Conservation Trust for North Carolina, a statewide conservation group that works with local land trusts to protect the Blue Ridge Parkway, are partnering to help the Wildacres Board of Directors permanently protect the property with a conservation easement.
The $1M grant from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund will be used to purchase the conservation easement on the lands surrounding the nearly five miles of pristine mountain streams that lace the property. This will safeguard water quality in the Armstrong Creek watershed in the Catawba River's headwaters by ensuring permanent protection of the forested stream buffers and uplands.
The easement on the Wildacres property has an estimated value of $3,850,000 based on appraisals. In addition to the grant from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, purchase of the easement is made possible by a significant donation of easement value and cash from the landowner, along with a grant for $177,240 in matching funds from the Open Space Institute's Resilient Landscapes Initiative Capital Grants Fund, made to Conservation Trust for North Carolina for the project.
"Conserving Wildacres will yield numerous environmental benefits," said Susie Hamrick Jones, executive director of Foothills Conservancy. "Important Catawba River watersheds and the drinking waters they provide will be protected. Wildlife habitats and scenic vistas will be preserved. And opportunities for environmental education and wilderness recreation at Wildacres will be enhanced.
"The Clean Water Management Trust Fund is one of the best state funding sources we have for protecting critical watershed lands like those at Wildacres. We commend the North Carolina legislature for continuing to fund this program, and we thank the staff and trustees of Clean Water for funding this project. We also look forward to continuing our partnership with the Wildacres Board and the Conservation Trust to achieve permanent protection at Wildacres."
The Clean Water Management Trust Fund awards grants to local governments, state agencies and conservation nonprofits to help finance projects that specifically address water pollution problems.
"People who live in Morganton, Hickory, Statesville, or places in between, might not think about it when they turn on their faucet each day," said Bryan Gossage, executive director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. "But the other end of that long process begins where the rain collects in the mountains. With these funds and this partnership, we can better protect drinking water for North Carolinians far downstream."
Protecting water quality in the upper Catawba River basin benefits the millions of residents of North Carolina and South Carolina who draw drinking water from the Catawba River. Conserving the Wildacres property also protects the miles of streams found there that are designated by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality as High Quality Waters and Trout Waters indicating very high water quality and good conditions for trout.
The Wildacres property has been in the Blumenthal family since the 1930s, when I.D. Blumenthal purchased the land, which had been acquired by a bank during the Great Depression and fallen into disrepair. I.D. Blumenthal along with his wife Madolyn, his brother Herman, and Herman's wife Anita, restored Wildacres conference center to operable condition, and in 1946 the Blumenthals began inviting groups to spend a week at a time there during the summer months. In 1972, Wildacres became a public nonprofit, with a governing board of directors, dedicated to the betterment of human relations. Herman Blumenthal's son Philip Blumenthal has served as director of Wildacres since 1974 and is president of its board of directors.
Today Wildacres Retreat remains a conference center, offering its facilities to nonprofit groups conducting educational or cultural programs on topics such as music, art, science, religion, lapidary, craft and writing. It is also available for staff and board retreats for nonprofit organizations.
Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina is a nationally accredited, nonprofit regional land trust based in Morganton. The conservancy works cooperatively with landowners and public/private conservation partners to preserve and protect significant natural areas and open spaces. Focus areas include watersheds, forests and farmland across the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains and foothills in eight counties: Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Cleveland, Lincoln, McDowell, and Rutherford. Since 1995, Foothills Conservancy has protected more than 50,000 acres, including lands added to South Mountains, Lake James and Chimney Rock state parks; Wilson Creek, South Mountains and the Johns River state game lands; Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Information about Foothills Conservancy, including ways to support its work, can be found online at www.foothillsconservancy.org or by calling 828-437-9930.
Submitted by Mary Ellen Dendy

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