Beaufort County land granted to state to protect Henslow Sparrow

The federal government recently gave a 2,800 acre site in Beaufort County to the state, which the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission plans to use for conservation and recreational purposes.

The WRC’s primary objective for the land is to preserve the nesting habitat of the Henslow Sparrow, which the agency considers a “special concern” because of its small population. The land gift at the former site of Voice of America hinges on efforts to save the bird.

The agreement between the federal government and the WRC also says that the property cannot be used for profit, but can be used for recreational purposes that do not disturb the sparrow’s habitat. The bird is described as “uncommon and famously inconspicuous.” It breeds in grassland between April and July.

Among the WRC preliminary plans for the site are a rifle, pistol and archery range. Also under consideration is a retriever and equine facility.

The Old North State Retriever Association and the North Carolina Horse Council are the main outside groups involved in the project. The ONSRA is composed of 13 retriever clubs and the Boykin Spaniel Society. The Horse Council is the spokesman for the horse industry in North Carolina.

Representatives of the two animal groups met with several staff members of the WRC and generally agreed the VOA property is suitable for dog and horse activities as long as the sparrow habitat is undisturbed.

“I feel very good about this project,” said Erik Christofferson, deputy director of operations at the WRC.

He emphasized that studies and planning may take several years before the project goes forward. The WRC and the ONSRA began work two years ago looking for a suitable site for retriever field trails and hunt tests. Several state, county and private sites have been ruled out.

John W Thomas Jr. of Rocky Point near Wilmington heads up the dog group. He sees the retriever facility being used 52 weekends per year and yielding millions of dollars to the Beaufort County economy.

“We are a conservation group that trains dogs to retrieve upland game and waterfowl. We need about 1,500 acres with several ponds for our purposes. North Carolina has dedicated grounds for bird dogs. We rely on private property.”

The VOA site is primarily grass land suitable for building several ponds.

“It is ideal for what we want,” said Bryan Dick, a civil engineer and ONSRA member. “We can make this a phenomenal facility.”

He envisions six ponds each about six to eight acres, a 100 acre waterfowl impoundment and habitat beneficial to various wildlife species.

“I don’t anticipate any interference with the sparrow,” Dick said.

“It is of high importance to the agency to preserve the sparrow’s habitat since this is their primary breeding ground in North Carolina,” said Christofferson, the deputy director. “We are very interested in finding the appropriate balance between the natural resources on this site and public recreation…

“It is a little too early to set a time frame for the project since we don’t really have all the information we need to determine what will and won’t be feasible…These kind of large projects that require collaboration among many partners and large sums of money can take a while to develop and eventually break ground. And even then sometimes different aspects are phased in at different times as funding is raised and partnerships are developed.”

The VOA site is about 13 miles northeast of Greenville and has been in Beaufort County since 1962. It is no longer used. At one time VOA was the most powerful broadcaster in the world.

The WRC plans to tear down 39 antenna towers at the site in the next several months and then remove brush piles and concrete pilings. The next meeting with the dog and horse groups is this summer.