Losing wild places: Guilford County’s open space program in peril

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Last year, the Guilford County Commission abruptly dismissed a citizen committee appointed to guide the county’s program to preserve open space. Now, the committee’s minutes are missing, threatening to erase the program’s history. With the slate cleaned, the county is considering opening preserves for mountain biking, horseback riding and primitive camping, even selling off at least one parcel and selectively logging another.

Phillips & Lee
Bill Phillips (left) and Buddy Lee (photo by Caleb Smallwood)

Bill Phillips, the president of the High Point Historical Society, and Buddy Lee, an 85-year-old retired schoolteacher, drive the backstreets along the city’s west-central spine, they encounter a parallel ghost world of older communities, former schools and shuttered factories overlaying the new city.

They talk about a tangle of family lines with obscure offshoots, people like the Hedgecocks and Cridlebaughs, whose settlement in the area dates back to the 1750s. Where newcomers might orient themselves to landmarks like the Starbucks on Westchester Drive near North Main Street, Phillips and Lee are liable to take a cut-through along the backstreets, noting a baptismal fount at a primitive Baptist church here or a cemetery there.

Reminiscing about the little house where he grew up on Fisher Street on a recent Thursday morning, Lee said, “My daddy had a garden and my mother canned all summer long.”

The area flanking North Main Street from Lexington Avenue to Westchester Drive was known as Mechanicsville when Lee was growing up in the 1930s. Lee remembers a shirt factory operating at the present-day site of the High Point Chamber of Commerce.

Musing on a recent effort to rebrand the area as part of a push to revitalize the city, Phillips zestfully recalled a comment he once made to Aaron Clinard and Wendy Fuscoe, respectively the former chairman and former executive director of City Project.

“Aaron, Wendy, this ain’t Uptowne,” Phillips had said, only half joking. “It’s Mechanicsville. I’m gonna put up a memorial in front of the chamber of commerce. Just give me a little more time to get some contributions together to raise the funds.”

A watershed flows to the west from North Main Street, beginning with a spring on Sherbrook Drive. The stream crosses Westchester Drive, a relatively recent development in Lee’s lifetime, and feeds into one of three tributaries to Rich Fork. The stream network, so named because it’s a fork of Abbotts Creek, is the only part of Guilford County that feeds into the Yadkin River watershed; the Deep River and the Haw River, which drain the vast majority of the county, ultimately flow into the Cape Fear watershed before emptying into the Atlantic.

Lee has been coming down to the creek since he was a child. He describes it as his favorite place, one where he spent “a lot of joyful times.”

Lee worked in furniture factories and hosiery mills before he caught the teaching bug when he met his future wife. But long before he entered education, he experienced Rich Fork as an outdoor classroom to study the flora and fauna of the North Carolina Piedmont.

An early 20th Century rock quarry in the present-day Rich Fork Preserve (courtesy photo)

You can still see the letters of his name “Buddy” where he carved them in a tree at the age of 8 or 10. He waded in the shallow pools and drank the water. Then, as now, the stream was strewn with small boulders — a residual of a rock quarry that closed down long before Lee was born.

A photograph of the quarry shows a cartful of rock descending from the bluff on a crude track, soon to be loaded onto a mule-drawn cart. The photograph is undated, but one of Lee’s friends told him it was taken in the early 20th Century.

“This is pretty neat,” he said on a recent visit, as he ducked under a fallen tree blocking the path. He pointed out May apple and wild ginger. Of the latter, he remarked, “That is native, but it’s very rare in these parts.”

Speaking during a public meeting at the High Point Public Library on June 25, Lee pleaded with local officials from Guilford County to prohibit mountain biking along the creek. Known as Conner Trail, the parcel was donated by Lib and Bob Conner. Together with six other tracts, it comprises a 116-acre parcel stretching along the Davidson County line from Hartley Drive down to Lexington Avenue in High Point. The larger tract also includes the Hedgecock homeplace, a working farm dating back to the 1880s.

“Recently someone who is unfamiliar with the project started a Facebook barrage to skew a poll in in favor of the bicycle enthusiasts who want to turn [the preserve] into a recreational park,” Lee told the county officials at the library. “People who lack the background, research, investment and understanding of the original purposes of the project in the first place, which is to preserve a natural scene for visitors to enjoy and learn about the flora and fauna, and to explore what life was like living on a farm in that area in the late 1800s. Let’s remain true to the original project and not bend to a special-interest group that is looking out for their own special gains.”

Mountain bikers from around the Triad also cherish Rich Fork. For many of them, the landmark for the trail network is Northwood Elementary, accessed from Lexington Avenue.

“If anybody has questions about mountain biking out there, the buck probably stops with me,” said Bo Colbert, a Randolph County resident with a trimmed, salt-and-pepper beard, publicly acknowledging that he developed the trail system. “I know more about that place than probably anybody in this room when it comes to mountain biking. I share Buddy Lee’s passion greatly for Northwood.”

Lee posed a simple question during the meeting.

“If we have bike trails here,” he asked, “who is going to be able to walk that beautiful creek, which is laden with rock from the rock quarry?”

To that, Colbert emphasized that many mountain bikers are respectful of other trail users, including hikers and horseback riders, and hold just as much appreciation for nature as anyone else.

“Mountain bikers can coexist over here,” he said. “There’s no reason everybody can’t have something special out there. I see more owls, turkeys, deer, wildlife, turtles, copperheads when I’m mountain biking as I have ever done hiking.”

  • John D. Young

    It is important to understand that all actions and recommendations by the Guilford County Open Space Committee had to be fully approved by the Guilford County Parks and Recreation Commission and the Board of County Commissioners. For example the approval of the 2009 Open Space Report, while officially approved on a consent agenda, required a lot of direct interaction with the BOCC in work session meetings and many conversations.

    • char

      that is what worries everybody…..

  • Tommy Rodgers

    A handful of octogenerians who want to exclude any user group that would conflict with their childhood memories of the forest area? Seems like that’s a much more obvious example of a “special-interest group” than the much, much larger subset of the population that respects and cherishes the outdoors while also utilizing it for health, fitness, and wholesome family exercise.

  • Mark

    Well said Tommy. I was at this meeting and it was every bit as intense as the author describes. Very thankful Mark Gatehouse was there to share his perspective and information.

  • Jimmy “Wu” Hackenberg

    So after 10 million dollars of bond money has been spent; I’ll ask one question. Where are the bike trails?

    IMHO, the only misinterpretation came from the Guilford County Open Space Committee, and their lack of diligence in following the 2009 Guilford County Open Space report. Which was their mission statement at the time. Below is a copy and paste of part of said report…

    WHAT IS OPEN SPACE?

    The Guilford County Open Space Committee has been in existence for eight years. In that time,
    the OSC has put together a successful land protection program based on the following tenets.

    Definition of Open Space

    “Land in a predominantly undeveloped condition, including forests, wetlands, stream corridors,
    managed meadows, and agricultural areas. Land protected by Guilford County as open space is
    protected in perpetuity and is suitable for native wildlife and plant habitat; water quality
    protection; natural resource preservation; passive recreation; trails for non-motorized vehicles;
    ecologically sustainable agricultural activities; and scientific or educational uses.” Guilford
    County Open Space Committee, July 17, 2007.

    Mission Statement of the Open Space Program

    To identify suitable lands for acquisition and preservation, develop plans for their protection and
    provide public education about land conservation.
    Guiding Principles of the Open Space Program
    1) Acquisition and preservation of open space will be based on working with willing
    property owners. There will be no takings of private land.
    2) Establishing priority areas for the acquisition of open space and updating them
    periodically, while being flexible enough to take advantage of special acquisition
    opportunities and respond effectively to threats on high priority tracts.
    3) A focus on the multiple uses, functions and benefits of open space.
    4) Adherence to the concept of corridors and bubbles, such that, in thirty years, there will be
    strategically located open space bubbles or core areas throughout the county. Those core
    areas will be linked together by corridors, such as streams, greenways, bike trails,
    walking paths, or other linear connections to facilitate wildlife migration and recreation
    in core areas. Core areas will have uses appropriate for each site.
    5) Optimal use of bond funds to maximize their impact by seeking matching grants, by
    accepting donations of land, and by seeking partners to help acquire and manage open
    space.