Investing in our past, present and future

If I didn’t have natural places to visit – trails to hike, rivers to kayak, mountains to climb, the sound of total quiet deep in the woods and of running brooks and streams – my life would be far less full.

Famous naturalist John Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” We need these places and experiences to revive us and offer us respite and escape from staring at computer screens, sitting in office buildings, as well as the stress,hustle and bustle of day-to-day life.

Nature offers us places and opportunities to challenge ourselves in ways we never could otherwise: kayaking down a waterfall, climbing up a mountain, snowboarding down one, scaling a rock-face, running a long-distance trail run – just to name a few. Nature also provides us with a place to both escape others and to commune with friends.

A person I know recently shared that she was taking a friend who had been experiencing some problems out for a hike, commenting that “a walk in the woods is good for the soul.” In a world where much social interaction occurs through technological means like email and Facebook, we crave authentic experiences. Our natural areas give us the places and opportunities to have them.

Perhaps the transition to spending our time “virtually” on computers and in front of video games instead of being outside and together has happened so quickly and is so convenient that we haven’t noticed. Or perhaps it’s that many of us do still live in rural areas and simply take them for granted. Growing up in the country near a small town and moving to a more urban area, I now realize more than ever the importance of publicly accessible lands for all these benefits they provide.

North Carolina has four important state trust funds that allow us to conserve lands for public benefit – places with significant natural areas, to expand recreational opportunities, protect water quality and help keep family farms in business. Those funds are: the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund and N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. I work with those trust funds through my job with The LandTrust for Central North Carolina, and so I have the opportunity to see the amazing and unique places that are preserved and opened to the public thanks to these trust funds, and which would not be preserved without them.

The land trust, in partnership with the N.C. Zoo, has preserved the largest remaining old-growth Piedmont longleaf pine forest in the state. Recently, the first prescribed burn in 80 years took place there – a historic occasion. The site preserves both natural and cultural history, with scars visible on ancient trees reminding us of the turpentine industry of our past. The project was made possible by private donation and the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

The land trust has worked with the Capel family to preserve more than 300 acres at the mouth of the Uwharrie River, thanks to private donation and funds from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. We are working to provide public river access there for boaters and anglers, saving recreational users a 45-minute drive to the Morrow Mountain State Park boat landing in Stanly County. The land trust purchased the 400-acre Springer property at the confluence of the Yadkin and South Yadkin Rivers in Davie County, also thanks to funding from a private donor, the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the City of Salisbury, whose water intake is on this tract.

In downtown Spencer, we partnered with the town to buy a 42-acre mature hardwood forest that is now a passive park and educational forest. Trails are being built there and programming planned for environmental education. This is thanks to private donations and a grant from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.

The N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund has provided funding that has allowed us to protect two dairy farms, one in Iredell County and one in Rowan, and this past year helped us protect 160 acres at the confluence of the Rocky and Pee Dee Rivers in Anson County. Keeping farms viable is important for our environment and our economy, as agriculture remains the No. 1 industry in North Carolina, and following behind as a close second is tourism.

North Carolina is the fifth fastest-growing state. As more people move here, there will be even more need for water, food and recreational locations, while the opportunities to continue preserving those lands and the rural and scenic character of our state will diminish. The ability to do that relies on those state trust funds and the private dollars they leverage.

We don’t often stop to think of how it is that the public lands upon which we hike, bike, kayak, fish and hunt become open and available to us. Nor do we frequently stop to contemplate the farmers who make food show up in our grocery stores. Investing in the lands that make these things possible is truly an investment in preserving our past, enjoying our present and enhancing our future.

Crystal Cockman

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are not necessarily those of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.