03 April 2008

Wetlands Grant Instrumental in Conservation of North Carolina Coastal Habitat

A million dollar grant to the North Carolina Coastal Federation will fund expansion of coastal habitat conservation in the Atlantic region.

The funds, provided through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will be used to purchase of a 204 acre Morton Tract.

Morton Tract habitat, to the right. Images courtesy of the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

This tract will be combined with the 775-acre Huggins Farm natural area and a 168-acre North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s waterfowl impoundment to create a 1,147 acre contiguous area for flora and fauna along the shore of the White Oak River estuary.

“The purchase of this farm to preserve it as open space for wildlife conservation and water quality benefits links two other properties, multiplying the benefits of all of them,” said Christine Miller, planning and communications director for the Federation. “The Morton Farm tract will link these two areas together, creating a corridor for wildlife and preventing the fragmentation of the area that would occur if this land in between the two properties were to be developed. Much habitat is negatively affected as land is divided up and developed. The purchase also creates a large swath along the White Oak that remains natural and infiltrates its own runoff, protecting the water quality of these productive waters, which are under increasing threats from polluted stormwater runoff.

"This acquisition enlarges the landscape of the White Oak River landscape conservation protection objective," Miller said. "The diversity of habitat types, marsh, upland pine-hardwood, and tidal drainages found on this tract provides habitat protection for many species and also increases the buffer along the White Oak to enhance water quality protection."

"The three properties will preserve approximately 437 acres of coastal wetlands and emergent marsh, according to the project summary, and include about 213 acres of bottomland hardwoods, and restore to high quality habitat (including longleaf pines) about 497 of upland forest. Purchase of the Morton tract will conserve 69 acres of forested wetlands and emergent marsh and restore 56 acres of mixed mature forest, as well as 79 acres of agricultural land, that is now in turf grass production to mostly longleaf pine."

Webb Creek, in the project area.

White Oak river.

Notable species that will benefit include the Bald Eagle, and the threatened or endangered species, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, the American alligator, and the West Indian manatee. Two federal species of concern, 22 state-listed and rare wildlife species, and a minimum of 30 other fish and wildlife species known to occur on or near the Morton Farm Tract will benefit from this project, according to the FWS summary. Habitat for over 20 high-priority, other priority and moderate-priority bird species, such as the Wood Duck, American Golden-plover, Royal Tern, American Black Duck, Swainson’s Warbler, listed in various migratory bird conservation plans will also be enhanced by this proposal.

“Once the purchase is complete, we will turn the property over to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to be managed as gamelands along with their current impoundment,” Miller said. "We expect to close on the property in the fall of this year. It should transfer over to WRC shortly after that."

"The area will be available to birding, but may only be accessible by water, which is how the current property is managed," Miller added. Visitors "who get a special hunting opportunity permit from the WRC will access the property on the road. Webb Creek and the little tributary are both nice areas for kayaking."

Matching funds for this project were provided by the NCCF and North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

A project partnership made the project possible, said Miller. “We needed the financial support from both state and federal agencies, the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and management help from the state Wildlife Resources Commission, and land stewardship values of Mrs. Morton, who, with her late husband, preserved this beautiful land on the White Oak for use by everyday people.”

“This project plan was developed by members of the Onslow Bight Conservation Forum,” according to the FWS project summary, “including several divisions of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (WRC, Natural Heritage Program, NC Division of Marine Fisheries), Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Station, the NC Coastal Land Trust, NCCF, the Croatan National Forest, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and others. These properties will serve as a wildlife corridor to connect Camp Lejeune and the Hoffman State Forest to the Croatan National Forest.

“The acquisition of the Morton tract brings 204 acres of land into public ownership to be used by the public for bird-watching, hiking, hunting, and educational field trips when it is incorporated as part of the state public game lands.

“All three properties together have approximately 10 miles of intertidal salt marsh shorelines along tidal creeks and the White Oak River estuary. The Morton tract alone has over 2,500 feet of shoreline along the White Oak River and Webb Creek, and over three miles of shoreline on an unnamed tributary that flows into the White Oak. This entire complex of properties also offers exceptional water-based recreational opportunities for canoeing, kayaking and fishing. These tracts of land are part of the broader Onslow Bight Conservation partnership, which has a major focus on the White Oak River watershed, which lies right in the center of the partnership’s geographic focus area.

“The Onslow Bight Conservation Forum partnership was formed to promote healthy wildlife and fisheries throughout the Onslow Bight landscape focus area. This is particularly important to the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune and the Naval Air Station at Cherry Point, to prevent them from becoming isolated islands of wildlife habitat in a sea of urban development. This complex of properties will complement other natural areas already protected by the efforts of the Onslow Bight partners including the 1,463 acre Quaternary Tract a few miles up the White Oak River; 110 acre Huggins Island downstream in the White Oak River; 20 acre Jones Island also in the White Oak River; and the Croatan National Forest across the river in Carteret, Jones and Craven counties.

"The Resource Enhancement Section of DMF will use the tract as a much-needed site to stockpile and load oyster shell onto barges for its oyster reef and cultch program, increasing habitat that will provide significant benefit for waterfowl.

The Stewards of the White Oak - another partner in the project - will add the Morton Tract to their clean-up route, removing litter from the waterway.

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