On a busy stretch of Benson Road, the Christmas trees stand 30 feet high – tall enough that only a red-tailed hawk could mount a star on the topmost branch.
The forest here contains some beauties, mostly Leyland cypress, but none will face an ax or bear a string of twinkle lights. The Triangle Land Conservancy now owns the 40 acres along Lake Benson and Swift Creek, including a rare Wake County tree farm that hides lush wildlife.
“The Christmas trees are kind of unique,” said Leigh Ann Hammerbacher, TLC’s associate director, “but the hardwood is all mature oak and hickory. When we were out here doing the site work, we found a snapping turtle 3 feet long. It was the biggest turtle I’ve ever seen in Wake County.”
The total cost of the conservation project came to $825,830, paid for mostly with Wake County open space bond money and Raleigh’s upper Neuse River clean water fund. The Liles family sold the land for roughly $100,000 less than its appraised value – a bargain, Wake commissioners said – hoping that it could be saved. The conservancy now owns it, and Wake County holds an easement keeping the land from being developed or cleared.
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Martha Liles said the land in southern Wake County has been in the Rand family – her father’s ancestors – since colonial times, and the nearby Rand-Bryan house, built in 1871, is the birthplace of Tony Rand, a former Democratic leader in the N.C. Senate. Tony Rand was still in grade school when Liles’ father bought the house in 1950 and ran a dairy farm there until a friend proposed Christmas tree growing as an easier line of work, which continued there until 2010.
The Rand-Bryan house is on a separate lot next door and continues to operate as a wedding and party venue.
Possible public uses
The nonprofit Triangle Land Conservancy works to conserve open space and can boast 18,000 protected acres in the Triangle, 5,000 of which it owns and another 8,000 of which it holds under conservation easements. To start, TLC will maintain the Benson Road land for wildlife habitat and water quality protection. Eventually, it could be used for guided field trips and public recreation.
“When I was in the fifth grade, my class came here for a field trip,” Liles said. “My father would go find a little creek and make a water wheel, show them where the snakes live. When we have weddings and parties here, people are just fascinated by space. They want to go out and wander. They don’t see open space much in Wake County.”
She paused for a moment to point out a deer bounding into the trees.
“Wasn’t that nice of him to show up?”
A tour of the land wound through tall cypresses, near the edge of the lake and to a shallow pond, home to bluegill. But as Liles left, she hung a pine cone coated with peanut butter and birdseed – food for the critters that will keep their homes.