Three Rivers

Photos contributed by Three Rivers Land Trust

Where there is open space, there is opportunity in Moore County. Whether it is coming from development interests, recreation or farming opportunities — or a conservation viewpoint — there are eyes watching as property values continue to rise.

Recently Three Rivers Land Trust (TRLT) completed a merger with the Sandhills Area Land Trust (SALT), effective July 1. The two organizations have become one, combining their strengths and resources across a 15-county footprint.

“It was a really smooth transition,” said TRLT Executive Director Travis Morehead. “Both of our boards had talked about this for awhile and we’d worked out all of the internal questions.”

The two similarly organized nonprofits had announced their intent to merge in February. Since then, three land conservation projects in Moore County totaling 90 acres have closed. And TRLT is actively working to preserve another 841 acres in Moore and Harnett counties by year’s end.

“If everything is landing right, we can close on those projects. We have the funding and we have willing landowners. It is just a matter of getting the surveys and appraisals back — the mechanics of it,” Morehead said.

As a whole, TRLT is slated to close over 4,000 acres of projects this year. A typical year usually sees 1,066 acres protected, so this is a boom year all around.

“Nailing everything in the hopper that we can close, we are excited to see that,” said Morehead.

He credited the organization’s staff, especially Crystal Cockman, TRLT’s director of conservation, the combined new TRLT board, supportive donors and landowners with ensuring these projects and others in the future will have the chance to proceed.

Local Economics and Open Space

Shifting global markets have pushed North Carolina’s prominence away from manufacturing and tobacco and toward tourism, business and military-friendly investments over the last 20 years.

But as development pressure has heated up, suburban sprawl has crept across the state’s landscape. Since 2000, more than 310,000 farm acres were transformed by development — 100,000 acres in 2004 alone.

Here in Moore County, agriculture/forestry, tourism and the military have long played key economic roles. The rural nature and open spaces were complementary to their activities.

The majority of local farms are small, family-run operations, with the large forested tracts also mostly held by families.

With development, particularly along the eastern side of the county from Cameron to Aberdeen chipping away at formerly rural areas, there’s been pushback from concerned residents while elected officials grapple with how to best balance quality of life issues.

In January, the Moore County Board of Commissioners drew a line in the proverbial sand to protect the most rural and agricultural areas of the county, voting unanimously to approve two amendments to its Unified Development Ordinance that place new limits on subdivision development.

The Land Trust Role

The longleaf forest was, at one time, the largest landscape in the United States: a 90-million acre wilderness, stretching from Virginia to Florida to Texas. Today that figure has dwindled to 3 million acres, and there is a national effort to try and restore it.

Much of the remaining longleaf in the Sandhills is on privately owned property around Fort Bragg and Camp Mackall, land targeted to help create a natural bridge that will eventually stretch from Drowning Creek to the Uwharrie Mountains.

SALT was founded in 1991, coinciding with a rise in land trusts across the state. Currently there are 23 land trusts in operation in North Carolina.

Through localized efforts, SALT has protected an estimated 15,000 acres in Moore, Cumberland, Hoke, Scotland, Richmond and Harnett counties, as well as longleaf pine ecosystem areas in Lee and Robeson counties.

Similarly, TRLT was first established in 1995 as the LandTrust for Central North Carolina, and the organization has protected over 26,000 acres through projects in Anson, Cabarrus, Davidson, Davie, Iredell, Montgomery, Randoph, Richmond, Rowan and Stanly counties.

However, over the last two decades protecting land has become a more sophisticated process as the projects themselves have become more complicated.

TRLT, now merged with SALT, will continue its mission to conserve important natural areas, family farms, historic places, and rural landscapes, and to reconnect people to local conservation.

“We hope to put our best foot forward and allow people to see what we’re doing,” said Morehouse. “Getting more people involved in 2020 is a goal for us. We want to grow our membership and we want people to be involved with their local chapters.”

Based in Salisbury, one of TRLT’s strongest programs is the county chapter program. The former SALT office in downtown Southern Pines has been repurposed as a field office and de facto county chapter for the organization.

Ellie Daniels will serve as regional director and a part-time stewardship associate remain in place.

“Both of our current staff members will stay and operate out of this office,” Morehead said, noting he visits generally once a week. “We are here and we are committed to being a presence here in every capacity.”

Protected Ground, New Endeavors

Conserving land typically falls within one of two processes: a landowner can place a voluntary conservation easement on their property, or the land itself can be donated directly to a land trust.

“We are not anti-development. We recognize that growth is important, but we want to see if focused around core areas,” Morehead said. “We work with landowners who want to work with us so we can protect natural areas as best we can.”

Larger tracts and those with special natural communities, like pitcher plants or other endangered or threatened species are particularly attractive.

“We try to look at tracts that are at least 40 acres. When we evaluate a property, we start the bar at 40,” Morehead said. “But that’s not saying we wouldn’t look at a 10-acre site if it had something significant or special on it.”

Earlier this year, TRLT worked with private landowners in Eastwood on a 15-acre tract that was added to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services Plant Conservation Program’s Eastwood Preserve.

The site is recognized as a significant natural heritage area because of the occurrence of the state endangered Sandhills lily, a relatively new species, discovered by long-time Moore County resident and botanist, Bruce Sorrie, around 20 years ago.

The property’s former landowners, Andy and Heather Kiser, allowed TRLT to purchase the tract using Clean Water Management Trust Fund dollars, and then the tract was transferred to the state. This property brings the total acreage of land in the Eastwood Preserve to 392 acres.

“The addition of this tract to the existing Plant Conservation Preserve is an important part of protecting the habitat that this plant requires,” said Lesley Starke, a plant ecologist with NC Plant Conservation Program.

TRLT also worked with private landowners to conserve a 17-acre tract on the Deep River in Moore County.

The Deep River flows through northern Moore and across Lee County before joining the Cape Fear River downstream from Jordan Lake. It is a major contributor to the water supply of these counties as well as Harnett and Cumberland Counties.

SALT had worked quietly over the last few years with several diverse groups to protect and conserve thousands of acres of land along the Deep River in northern Moore County — taking a “landscape scale” approach to conservation.

The Deep River tract project was made possible through funding from the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the support of TRLT, in addition to property owners Jeffrey and Linda Sheer.

More recently, TRLT announced the donation of a 30-acre field and forest property in the Vass area. The late Sara Dykstra had left the tract to TRLT in her will, so it will be protected in perpetuity.

“Three Rivers Land Trust prides itself on managing the properties we own well to protect and enhance their conservation values both now and into the future,” Morehead said.

He noted one of TRLT’s newest initiatives is a youth education program funded through a grant from the Rotary Club of the Sandhills that Morehead described as a “fairly substantial gift.”

TRLT is working to implement the course into area school’s academic curriculums for grades 6-12.

“We want to get kids interested in the outdoors and get them involved in conservation-related activities,” he said.

To learn more about voluntary conservation options or learn more about TRLT’s work in the Sandhills, visit

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