Greater funding could improve access to our public lands

Land Preservation
Monday, August 17, 2020
View from Little Long Mountain. Photo by Jared Byrd

“The public wants access to the land it already owns,” observed Jay Leutze, conservationist and author of Stand Up That Mountain. That sentiment was the driving force behind support for the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), recently signed into law after receiving wide bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.

The GAOA will provide a one-time outlay of $9.5 billion to address a maintenance backlog on federal lands. More importantly, it dedicates $900 million annually to purchase land for conservation and recreation. With this funding, it will be possible to augment everything from local greenways to national parks.

For an example of what the GAOA can potentially accomplish, look no farther than the Uwharries. Maps often represent the Uwharrie National Forest (UNF) as a large, contiguous blob in the center of the state. It looks impressive, vast and sprawling. But maps can be deceptive – what you see is merely the demarcation of the proclamation boundary. The US Forest Service (USFS) actually owns less than a third of the land within that area, just over 50,000 acres. Established in 1961, the UNF is relatively young and highly fragmented.

That’s resulted in public access challenges for some of the forest’s key features, which a dedicated funding stream could help resolve. Take the Uwharrie Trail, for example.

Beginning at the Woodrun trailhead on Highway 24/27, the trail runs north on USFS holdings for 20 miles. From the Jumpin’ Off Rock trailhead in the Ophir community, it once followed an informal corridor across a patchwork of public and private tracts to the Birkhead Wilderness Area. But the Birkhead is a 5,000-acre island in a sea of private land, disconnected from the rest of the Uwharrie Trail and with few access points.

The late Joe Moffitt, the legendary Boy Scout leader from Asheboro, established the route in the 1970s via handshake agreements with local landowners, cobbling together a 50-mile trail so his troops could earn their hiking badge in the Uwharries. Over the years, tracts changed hands and agreements fell by the wayside. Hikers were then forced to navigate paved roads in several places to reach the Birkhead and complete the trail.

[Rural by Choice: Navigating identity in the Uwharries]

Twenty years ago, Three Rivers Land Trust and private conservation buyers stepped in and started helping the USFS secure a permanent route. (News flash: non-profits and individuals are more nimble than the federal bureaucracy.) They were willing to hold the land until it could be transferred into USFS ownership. After decades of effort, they – along with partners like the N.C. Zoo, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Uwharrie Trailblazers – have closed all the gaps in Montgomery County and all but one in Randolph. Still, even when landowners are willing to sell or swap their land to the USFS, deals sometimes stall or fall apart due to the unpredictable nature of funding from the GAOA’s predecessor, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

The LWCF was created in 1965 to steer proceeds from offshore oil and gas leases toward conservation. This means land was protected at no direct cost to taxpayers. But there was a hitch. Congress gave itself the power to divert those funds, and it routinely did so. Often, less than half of the promised amount was made available for the intended purpose. Some years, it was zeroed out entirely.

“That’s no way to do a land deal,” Leutze said. “An 82-year-old landowner doesn’t want to hear that it might take four or five years – or longer – to secure the funding for a transaction.” The LWCF ultimately would put a land trust or government agency at a considerable disadvantage when a developer comes along with a cash offer.

The LWCF was due to sunset in 2015, at the end of 50 years. Several years before that, in 2009, Sen. Richard Burr began advocating for the program’s reauthorization. He and others in the conservation community also saw an opportunity to restructure the LWCF and correct some of its flaws. They built a bipartisan coalition in Congress, thanks in part to the support of over 900 conservation organizations across the nation, including a diverse set of interest groups ranging from the American Sportfishing Association to the Sierra Club.

Now, the GAOA stipulates the $900 million in annual funding will be dedicated and permanent, which ought to bring more stability and predictability to the process.

That’s the hope of those trying to fill the last remaining gap in the path to the Birkhead. “It’s a game changer,” said David Craft, head of the Uwharrie Trailblazers.

In July, Three Rivers Land Trust transferred a small tract known as the Sykes property to USFS ownership. “It’s a linchpin,” said Crystal Cockman, director of conservation for the land trust. While only seven acres, it officially extends the trail north of High Pine Church Road, the last paved road en route to the Birkhead. It also creates the vision for a future corridor and adds a sense of urgency to complete that final link.

The GAOA won’t be a means to buy up all the land within the Uwharrie National Forest’s vast proclamation boundary, nor is it intended to do so. Private lands will always be an essential part of the rural landscape – but this dedicated fund is another step on the long and winding path toward helping the Uwharrie National Forest realize its full potential for conservation and recreation.