Voluntary Ag Districts Benefit Farmers

Cost-Share programs are available for farmland conservation easement landowners through Buncombe County’s Voluntary Agricultural District 

Agricultural lands are an essential component of the western North Carolina landscape and the region’s natural and cultural history, and SAHC takes pride in helping farmers protect their land from non-farming development. Our agricultural conservation easement landowners’ commitment to permanently preserve their land in active farming contributes to the continued vibrancy and health of our region. In recognition of these contributions, Buncombe County Soil & Water Conservation offers a Voluntary Agricultural District Preservation Program, which benefits landowners whose farmland is under conservation easement in Buncombe County.

What is a Voluntary Agricultural District?

Voluntary Agricultural Districts (VADs) play an important role in slowing the loss of farmland and protecting farmers in the region. Farmland preservation helps protect our region’s natural resources, wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, and rural economy. Specifically, a VAD is an area of qualifying farmland of at least 50 acres, (which may consist of one large tract or a collection of nearby, independently owned parcels). In order to be eligible, farmland must meet several basic requirements and landowners must sign an agreement to preserve and promote agriculture in their communities. An Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural District (EVAD) additionally requires landowners to place their land under an irrevocable conservation easement restricting development (for 10 years or more).

What are the benefits of the VAD/EVAD program? 

Enrollment in the VAD/EVAD program provides landowners with access to many resources and economic benefits. Participants in the program may receive protection against nuisance suits, waived utility assessments, and educational materials. Furthermore, EVAD participants are eligible to receive up to 90% of cost share under the Ag-cost-share program.

To learn more about farmland preservation in Buncombe County, or to apply for the VAD/EVAD program, contact Ariel Ziip with Buncombe County Soil & Water or visit: https://www.buncombecounty.org/governing/depts/soil/farmland-preservation.aspx

Aerial Monitoring of Conserved Land

View from Above – Aerial Monitoring Using Satellite Imagery

To supplement our on-the-ground stewardship efforts, SAHC is developing an aerial monitoring program. SAHC stewards land spread across approximately 4,000 square miles — and as of 2020, our Stew Crew is responsible for monitoring over 50,000 acres of conservation easements and SAHC-owned land.

Individual tracts range from 0.5 acres to over 8,000 acres, with the majority of protected properties being between 100 and 200 acres – much of which is steep and rugged terrain. Annual monitoring site visits require substantial time and resources, and SAHC performs rigorously in fulfilling these monitoring responsibilities. However, as our portfolio of protected land continues to grow (yay, land protection!), the physical challenge of visiting every protected acre each year looms at the horizon of impossible — even for the Stew Crew at SAHC. 

Over the years, we have used new technological tools and methods to pragmatically boost efficiency and accomplish our commitment to perpetual stewardship of protected lands. This year we are excited about integrating aerial monitoring into our stewardship program.

What is Aerial Imagery Data and How Do We Use It?

In recent years, we have augmented our monitoring procedure by using satellite imagery that is freely available through Google Earth software to prepare for field visits. However, the intermittent publication of such publicly available imagery often makes it useless for detecting changes that occur on a protected property within the current year — the fundamental objective of annual monitoring.

To address issues of satellite data availability and resolution, we have researched companies who compile satellite data captured by multiple entities and make it available via a web service. Specifically, we’ve been looking at companies that focus on providing high resolution satellite imagery (that’s 0.5 meters or less) for environmental and conservation organizations. This service is a repository for historical and current imagery, and they contract with commercial satellite companies to request current images where they are unavailable. 

Aerial Monitoring in Keeping with LTA Standards and Practices

SAHC has decided to proceed with developing an aerial monitoring program in keeping with the Land Trust Alliance’s Standards and Practices.

We are currently identifying properties that SAHC stewards that are best candidates for aerial monitoring and plan to begin implementation in early spring of 2020. This program has the potential to help SAHC more completely survey properties to detect changes – especially encroachments in remote locations. It does not, however, replace on-the-ground monitoring. While monitoring using current, high resolution satellite imagery will enable us to increase efficiency and be in better touch with the condition and activity on the lands that we steward, we still very much look forward to seeing you all in the field!

 

ETSU Student Volunteers

Thank you to East Tennessee State University’s Service Learning Program for volunteering to assist with land management at SAHC’s Bird House Preserve in the Highlands of Roan. Student volunteers helped remove old structures and continued Golden-winged Warbler habitat management on the property. In the process we salvaged roughly 50 black locust posts that will be used for future trail maintenance.

Roan Recreation Updates 2019

We are working with Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), and Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club (TEHCC) to address recreational impacts in and around Carver’s Gap and Grassy Ridge. This area, with easy access to stunning scenic views along the Appalachian Trail, has experienced significant increases in visitation. We joined these partners for two work days this summer, to repair and restore a section of the trail going up Jane Bald. In addition, new signage and interpretative materials are planned for 2020.

Over the course of the summer, Roan Naturalist Sarah Jones interacted with more than 8,500 people on the Appalachian Trail. Sarah taught visitors about the ecology of the Roan Highlands and the role that SAHC and other partners play in protecting the landscape.  She shared Leave No Trace ethics and provided support for hikers of all levels. We are very appreciative to our friends at the ATC and the TEHCC for their support of this position.

College Students Volunteer in the Roan

Students from Mars Hill University and Warren Wilson College joined us this spring for a Golden-winged Warbler habitat management workday and camping trip along the Appalachian Trail in the Highlands of Roan.

The energetic volunteers cleared downed tree limbs and lopped saplings to create ideal breeding ground for this threatened species of neo-tropical migratory songbirds. Read more

Mowing Management for the Birds

Grassland birds are in trouble. As the grassland habitat needed for nesting and rearing their young continues to disappear, birds such as the Eastern Meadowlark, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Bobolink found here in the Southeast are declining in numbers. So what can we do to help? Well, the good news is that the agricultural grasslands found throughout this region, such as hayfields, can provide the habitat these birds need to thrive with some simple management practices..

Ideally, hayfields should be mowed outside of the nesting season, which generally occurs from April to August. This prevents nests from being destroyed and ensures fledged young are developed enough to fly away. However, for economic reasons mowing often needs to occur during this period. If this is the case for you, consider implementing some or all of the following practices to contribute to the protection of birds and other wildlife who utilize this grassland habitat:

Practice rotational mowing. Maintain unmowed patches for wildlife habitat between areas being mowed and rotate which sections are mowed and unmowed each year. The size of mowed/unmowed sections should be determined based on your needs and field size, but remember that larger unmowed areas provide more wildlife habitat! For more info check out page 5 of this USDA leaflet:

Aim high! Set your mower as high as possible. However, even  4-8” off the ground can help save the lives of many grassland birds and other wildlife.

Leave uncut border fields. To allow for sufficient bird and wildlife cover allow a 10+ foot strip of hay to remain on the border of the field. This provides food along with nesting, escape, and brood cover. A wider border leads to less predation of nests.

Mow from the inside out. By mowing from the field center outward you can provide cover for birds as they escape to the edges of the field and prevent them from getting trapped in the center of the field during mowing.

Reduce mowing speed. This practice aids in giving birds the time to react and escape during a hay harvest.

Avoid night mowing. Birds are less likely to try to escape from the area being mowed during the night.

Use a flushing bar. This horizontal bar, attached in front of the blades of harvesting equipment, has chains that hang down and drag through the field to scare wildlife away from danger. This primarily helps to protect adult birds.

Golden-winged Warbler Working Group

Birdwatching with Working Group membersIn Spring 2019, the Southern Appalachian Golden-winged Warbler Working Group, consisting of more than 10 agencies and organizations, met in the Roan Highlands to discuss landscape-scale conservation measures, including strategic land protection and cooperative management projects. SAHC was proud to host the group on our preserves and to assist with touring iconic public lands across the Roan. Read more