$250K in grant funds likely last piece of Rocky Fork puzzle

Brad Hicks • Jan 18, 2012 at 11:24 PM

ERWIN — The Rocky Fork project is nearing completion and it recently received some significant financial support.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, through Walmart’s 2012 Acres for America program, has awarded a $500,000 grant to the Blue Ridge Forever Coalition for the protection of more than 12,000 acres of forest land in eastern Tennessee and North Carolina.

Half of this grant funding is to be used toward the protection of the approximately 10,000-acre Rocky Fork area, which is located in Unicoi and Greene counties.

The aim of the U.S. Forest Service is to obtain as much of the Rocky Fork area as possible for preservation. Terry McDonald, public affairs officer with the Cherokee National Forest, said previously that the Rocky Fork area is the largest undeveloped property in the southern Appalachians.

Over the past several years, the Forest Service has been acquiring Rocky Fork property from The Conservation Fund, a national conservation organization. Since the first conveyance in 2008, the Forest Service has acquired around 8,000 acres of Rocky Fork, with the most recent conveyance coming in late September when the Forest Service acquired an approximately 1,400-acre parcel from The Conversation Fund. The Conservation Fund is one of 12 conversation organizations that make up the Blue Ridge Forever Coalition.

“These grant dollars will be used to help really get us across the finish line at Rocky Fork,” said Ralph Knoll, a field representative with The Conservation Fund.

The conveyance of around 1,200 acres of Rocky Fork land, the last section remaining unprotected, is likely to occur later this year, Knoll said. As with past conveyances, The Conservation Fund will sell the portion of property to the Forest Services, which will be paid for with federal monies allocated in the 2012 budget to the Land & Water Conservation Fund.

“The grant money from Walmart, we’ll put that into the ground at Rocky Fork, and it just greatly helps us get across the finish line,” Knoll said. “And, at some point later this year, we’ll be able to put those dollar in the ground along with the federal dollars we received in the FY12 budget.”

According to a release from The Conservation Fund, the grant money will assist in the protection of the final section of Rocky Fork, conserving a haven for wildlife, safeguarding water quality, and supporting economic opportunities for neighboring communities.

“The money, it all goes toward the protection of Rocky Fork,” Knoll said. “Whether it’s the wildlife habitat, whether it’s the warbler habitat or the brook trout habitat, it all functions in totality.”

Knoll also said those involved in securing the grant are grateful to be named as recipients.

“Receiving this grant clearly was extremely significant for us as well as our partners in North Carolina,” Knoll said. “I think it’s just another indication of how significant Rocky Fork is as a natural resource and that the Walmart program saw the same things we were seeing in Rocky Fork, and we were fortunate enough to get on that final list of receiving these valuable grant dollars.”

The remainder of the grant funding will be used to support the conservation of five tracts totaling more than 2,200 acres in North Carolina’s Ashe, Avery, Henderson and McDowell counties. The grant was secured through a collaborative effort by the Blue Ridge Forever coalition of land trusts, Conservation Trust for North Carolina, The Conservation Fund, and Appalachian Trail Conservancy, with supprt from Trout Unlimited, Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture and others, according to The Conservation Fund release.

“It is estimated that America loses nearly three million acres of open space each year,” Jennifer May-Brust, Walmart vice president of realty supplier management and compliance, said in the release. “Our strategic partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is helping save important wildlife habitats and fits perfectly with Walmart’s larger goal to bring sustainability into the communities we serve.”

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