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While attending a recent Foothills Conservancy gathering at Oak Hill Methodist Church about a new project, I was impressed with their ambitious goal to acquire over 600 acres nearby for the benefit of Burke County. Their success will certainly bring a dramatic change to our Oak Hill Community but, at the same time, I began to wonder what happens if this fails? Outside land developers actually hold more than 1,000 acres and, most likely, will clear cut the timber to sale off tracts.

Having lived in western Burke County most of my life near the small, but growing, community of Oak Hill, on occasion I’ve heard “They don’t make no more land,” a phrase I take to mean “You better make good use of the land you have.” Actually, I’ve accepted this as a calling to be a good steward of my land and help Mother Nature improve our little plot during my lifetime.

Taking this idea one step beyond personal, I also believe our towns, cities, county and state have a responsibility to improve and preserve Burke County lands for future generations. And we have seen it happen: public town parks; city “greenways;” historic county trails with impressive state parks at Table Rock, Lake James and South Mountains — all of which came about because of past visionary citizens and like-minded volunteers and government officials.

Today, Foothills Conservancy and its supporters have the vision. In fact, they already have a short-term hold on the 600-plus acres with $580,000 pledged toward a $3 million project. The longterm plan is to protect the land, forest, creeks and wildlife for conservation and public uses. Community gardens, walking trails, bicycle paths, camping and family picnics are likely uses. Our public schools, Western Piedmont, and the state School for Science and Mathematics under construction in Morganton, will have convenient access to outdoor classrooms.

And we must not forget that Burke County is widely promoted as “Nature’s Playground” as the “Gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains,” ranking among the state’s top counties in percentage of tourism job growth and visitor spending. An Oak Hill Forest preserve will add one more destination for our out -of-town visitors, with some so impressed they return as permanent residents.

It was J. Gordon Queen who popularized the phrase “Burke County will grow rather we like it or not,” a fact realized when a population of 20,000 in 1900 increased to almost 80,000 citizens in 2000. Our Oak Hill community has arrived at a crossroads (no pun intended) where decisions made by this generation will significantly affect the future of Burke County. We have the vision to do this, but it will take time, money and the effort of many to achieve.

Andrew Kota, executive director of Foothills Conservancy, emphasizes that a project of this size requires “many partnerships with local governments, civic clubs, businesses and industries, and even the signatures of supportive citizens to obtain much needed help from federal, state and private grants.”

If you have an interest in the Oak Hill Forest project, contact the Foothills Conservancy by phone (828-437-9930) or visit its office at 204 Avery Ave. in Morganton. Additional information is available online at foothillsconservancy.org, along with your chance to sign its petition of support.

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