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Some land for tomorrow

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No mosquitoes, no ticks and cool pleasant weather. Aside from the fact that I had to crawl through a rhododendron hell for an hour and spend the day up to my ankles in muck, the trip to Sugar Mountain Bog was a sure-fire respite from summer in the Piedmont.

Sugar Mountain Bog and Pineola Bog in Avery County make up the Mountain Bog Natural Area--one of two new natural areas transferred this summer to the state's park system as part of an ongoing effort to preserve North Carolina's natural heritage.

Tagging along with a state botanist and an N.C. State researcher who were studying the bog--I got to carry the soil auger--offered a detailed view of what people mean when they say diversity (along with a quick lesson in botanical Latin). Because they're wet and high up, mountain bogs like Sugar Mountain and Pineola are home to some of the mountains' rarer plants. The recently passed legislation that put the two bogs under state stewardship noted that unique lilies and threatened species like the purple leaf willowherb, along with the bog rose and bog fern, are within their soggy confines.

Even as remote as they seem when you're there, it's clear that we got lucky in finding, identifying and saving these places. Driving to and from them, you can't help but notice the building boom as resorts and retirement communities swallow up the mountainsides.

That's something the Mountain Bog Natural Area shares with the state's other new natural area--Sandy Run, an incredibly diverse savanna in Onslow County. You might blow right by on your way to Topsail, but inside it you'll find rare sedges and orchids along with Cooley's meadowrue and rough-leaf loosestrife. It's a site once destined for a DOT wetlands swap. That's where the DOT agrees to convert land it's acquired into a wetland so it can destroy an existing wetland somewhere else to build a road. Sandy Run's unique diversity ended the DOT plans for it, and the land is now under protection.

These two beautiful and wild places are land the state's set aside for future generations--a small victory for people who understand that there are places on this earth that are of a value far beyond anything you could ever build on them.

While the bogs and Sandy Run represent some of the environmental successes in the last session of the General Assembly, talking to people around the state, nothing seems to sting more than the inaction on the Land for Tomorrow bond referendum. The proposal to raise $1 billion for a long-range plan to save some of the state's unique lands--often critical for preservation of heritage farmland, rare species and water quality--seemed well on its way but lost support late in the session thanks mainly to Gov. Mike Easley's concerns about more bond debt.

A study commission, chaired by Rep. Lucy Allen (D-Franklin) and Sen. Dan Clodfelter (D-Mecklenburg), is gearing up to look at the best ways to pay for protecting key parcels. The study commission, which also has representatives appointed by the governor and state treasurer, is due to report to the General Assembly early in the next session.

Kate Dixon, Land for Tomorrow's executive director, says timing will be important. There is a lot of land throughout the state that's going on the market, she says, making it even more critical for the state to have the resources to move quickly or risk losing valuable parcels.

International Paper, for instance, recently announced it was selling 600,000 acres--about 2 percent of North Carolina. Also on the market is Chimney Rock, the Morse family's privately run park in Hickory Nut Gorge. So far, the negotiations with the state have not been fruitful and we risk losing the 100-year-old destination and its signature view of the mountains to private development.

While the state gets its act together, environmentalists are stepping in.

The Nature Conservancy recently purchased about 80,000 acres of the International Paper land, mostly in key watersheds in the coastal plain. Smaller purchases by nonprofits, counties and towns are scattered throughout the state. Last week, Environmental Defense produced a report on the loss of forestland and the need for action. According to ED's "Standing Tall" report, North Carolina is losing about 100,000 acres of privately owned forestland a year to development. It calls for an expansion of tax credits, reducing sprawl and innovative approaches to forest management as ways to help.

See it now

Also last week came the launch of the new "I Love Mountains" Web site. The innovative multimedia site, put together by Appalachian Voices and a consortium of Appalachian environmental groups, uses Google Maps to show the devastation caused by mountaintop mining. It is a stunning visual explanation and worth a visit at www.ilovemountains.org.

Kirk Ross travels the state for CapeFearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileOnJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com.

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