To view the full article by K. Chávez, Asheville Citizen Times, click here.
Sandy Bottom wetlands to receive protection for ‘national ecological significance’
Karen Chávez, Asheville Citizen Times Published 5:00 a.m. ET Jan. 14, 2020
ASHEVILLE – Do the thousands of drivers who zip down N.C. 191 through Bent Creek each day know they are passing through one of the rarest habitats in the state, and possibly the country?
Probably not. But the area in southern Buncombe County, just south of the Blue Ridge Parkway along the French Broad River and Brevard Road, known as Sandy Bottom Preserve, is not just a swampy-looking drive-through.
It’s such unique and imperiled wildlife habitat that the N.C. Division of Water Resources is proposing to offer Sandy Bottom greater protection.
The state agency will host a public hearing Jan. 21 at UNC Asheville to accept comments on reclassifying Sandy Bottom wetlands from “freshwater wetland” to “unique wetland,” also known as UWL.
This new classification offers additional protection to wetlands of exceptional or national ecological significance, said Adriene Weaver, environmental senior specialist with the Division of Water Resources.
Sandy Bottom Preserve is a 10-acre wetland along N.C. 191 in southern Buncombe County under consideration for greater protection by the N.C. Division of Water Resources.
The Sandy Bottom wetlands, about 5 miles south of Asheville in the French Broad River floodplain, is home to rare and threatened wildlife species. It represents a rare natural wetland community known as the montane floodplain slough forest, which is rated as critically impaired and also provides habitat for the significantly rare lax manna-grass population.
The 10-acre parcel has been protected as a wetland since the Clean Water Act was established in the 1970s. Weaver said it is owned by the Board of Trustees for the UNCA Endowment Fund, the Long Branch Environmental Education Center Inc., and a portion is on privately owned land held in a conservation easement.
Although it is close to the French Broad River and parkway lands, it does not have public access.
The Sandy Bottom Wetlands along N.C. 191 in Buncombe County provides habitat for rare and threatened wildlife species.
Under its current classification, Sandy Bottom has several uses, including stormwater storage and retention, moderation of extreme water level fluctuation, and shoreline protection. Perhaps most important is its function as habitat for wetland-dependent aquatic organisms and wildlife species.
“Reclassification to unique wetlands would recognize Sandy Bottom as a unique area mainly because it has rare and significant species,” Weaver said.
“It’s recognizing that this wetlands area is important. It serves as habitat for rare or threatened species. If Sandy Bottom were to receive unique wetland classification, projects could still occur, but they would have to demonstrate they are being constructed to meet the public need.”
This would require obtaining what is known as a 404/401 permit.
DOT plans helped spur move for more protection
The idea for reclassification came by way of three petitioners — MountainTrue, Defenders of Wildlife and the N.C. Wildlife Federation — mainly due to one of these impending projects — the widening of N.C. 191.
Dr. Amy Boyd, professor of biology at Warren Wilson College, spent years researching the flora found in Sandy Bottom. She was able to identify 366 species of vascular plants, which doesn’t include mosses and liverworts, also found in wetlands.
“Wetlands need lack of disturbance. You’d expect to find them along rivers like the French Broad. But in our area, rivers are magnets for industry, development and roads because they’re flat. A lot of the space that would normally be wetlands are displaced by industry and road building,” Boyd said.
“The main concern is the desire to widen N.C. 191. It would wipe out the wetland.”
She added that she is pleased to hear about the proposal to offer Sandy Bottom more protection.
Ben Prater, Southeast program director for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the petitioners, said that although the precious qualities of the wetlands have been known for decades, road-building spurred action.
“Sandy Bottom is quite exemplary in terms of its biodiversity and the habitat it provides. The wetlands are unique for the state and support a tremendous array of species including over 40 species of reptiles and amphibians, many of which are rare and have high conservation need, including the four-toed salamander and mole salamander,” which are considered state species of special concern, Prater said.
“Historically the (federally threatened) bog turtle was also found there, and it provides foraging habitat for endangered gray bats and it is home for bird species and mammals and other critters.”
Prater said the state has lost 90% of the wetlands that used to be found along river valleys and bottoms like the French Broad.
“To have a place like Sandy Bottom, which is intact and functioning and still maintains habitat and species that belong there is of great importance.”
The federally and state threatened bog turtle needs rare habitat such as Sandy Bottom wetlands, to survive.
The federally and state threatened bog turtle needs rare habitat such as Sandy Bottom wetlands, to survive. (Photo: Mike Horak/Special to the Citizen-Times)
Prater said the proposed widening of N.C. 191 was seen as a potential threat by many conservation groups. The new classification would make sure that as this planning moves forward, the state is required “to have to take a good hard look at what the impacts will be to that location. This will alert the N.C. DOT officials to the fact that this area is significant and important to wildlife, that this classification is important.”
The unique wetlands classification would apply not only to Department of Transportation projects but to any other development in the vicinity of the wetlands, Prater said.
Kendrick Weeks, Western wildlife diversity supervisor for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said bogs and wetlands are so rare because of WNC’s mountainous terrain, but those designated as “unique wetlands” are the rarest of all — there are only 33 such classified wetland areas in North Carolina.
“The definition is they have exceptional or national significance. For example the four-toed salamander is genetically distinct from other populations and only occurs in the French Broad River floodplains,” Weeks said.
He said they are desperately needed for the bog turtle, which is state and federally listed as endangered. Unfortunately for the tiny amphibian, it is highly prized – illegally – as a collectible and has not been found in recent years in Sandy Bottom, Weeks said.
Weaver said after the public hearing, where public comment will be taken, the comment will be sent to the Environmental Management Commission, which will vote in May. If passed, the EMC sends the recommendation to the Rules Review Commission for a vote. If the proposal is accepted, the rule would go into effect July 1. Public comment ends Jan. 31.
IF YOU GO
What: Public hearing on supplemental Unique Wetland classification
When: 6 p.m. Jan. 21. Speaker registration begins at 5:30 p.m.
Where: UNC Asheville, HIG225 Beaucatcher Mountain Room Highsmith Student Union, One University Heights, Asheville
For more information, visit deq.nc.gov. Public comment will be taken through Jan. 31. Written comments may also be mailed to Adriene Weaver, DWR Water Planning Section, 1611 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1611, or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.