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Rep Blackwell – Conservation Award

Representative Hugh Blackwell has been named Public Lands Conservationist of the Year by NCWF.

NC Representative Hugh Blackwell (District 86) has been a trailblazer in preserving thousands of acres in western North Carolina by increasing the miles of trails, leaving a legacy for future generations.

A State Trail can only be created by authorization of the General Assembly. Blackwell worked with NC State Parks and sponsored bills for three State Trails – Fonta Flora State Trail (Morganton to Asheville), Wilderness Gateway State Trail (Baker’s Mountain to Chimney Rock) and Overmountain Victory State Trail (SC line and TN line to Stone Mountain). After the passing of the bills, the number of State Trails from grew from six to nine.

Going one step further to ensure the success of state, regional and local trails, Blackwell sponsored the “Designate 2023 as Year of the Trail” bill and co-sponsored a trail funding bill. Both bills are through the House moving along the legislative process.

Representative Blackwell does not just sit in Raleigh signing bills for others to do trail work. He got his boots on the ground when he followed through on his vision of a trail along the Catawba River in his district. He arranged for the Western Piedmont Council of Governments to conduct a trail feasibility study. As part of the study, Representative Blackwell led 10 site visits to municipalities and landowners to explain the trail, its benefits and gather support.

One visit was to Vulcan Materials, who eagerly agreed to allow the trail to cross their property. They also committed to add educational signage and provide trail materials. The Morganton Vulcan Campus is NCWF WAIT certified, and they made a significant contribution to the local NCWF Chapter – Catawba River Wildlife Coalition after the visit which included CRWC President Beth Heile. As a respected legislator, Blackwell’s relationships with Duke Energy, NCWRC and others have been key in gaining cooperation and support for the new regional trail. Because of the strong foundational work, the volunteer-led Burke River Trail Association was formed and is continuing to move the trail forward.

Blackwell has also been incredibly involved with the Valdese Lakeside Park project where he lives. The 300-acre forested property on Lake Rhodhiss was purchased with the assistance of state grant money for which he wrote letters of support to NCLWF and PARTF. He took time to learn about the no-rise study needed at the park for a bridge crossing and secured funding for the study and expense of updating an inaccurate state flood map of the area. He can often be found hiking the park trails when he is in town. This passive park is an asset for his Tier 1 county and provides a chance for locals to explore and learn about the outdoors with no expense.

Trails may not be the first thing to come to mind when thinking about the NCWF mission of “protecting, conserving and restoring North Carolina wildlife and habitat.” But given another thought, it makes perfect sense. Trails help preserve wild places, provide connections between broken habitats and protect plant and animal species. Today, people want to use protected outdoor space –not just protect it and forget it. Exposing more individuals to the outdoors will allow them to fall in love with nature and want to do more to protect and conserve.

Testimonials from those who have worked with Representative Blackwell:

“Blackwell’s support and enthusiasm for the new Wilderness Gateway State Trail has resulted in Foothills Conservancy, Town of Valdese, and NC State Parks conservation land acquisitions of 3,300 + acres (to date) in the Catawba and Broad River Basins of WNC between the Cities of Hickory, Newton-Conover, Valdese and the communities of Vein Mountains and Thermal City near US 221. These lands will host 40 + miles of public trail in the future with the goal of eventually reaching Chimney Rock State Park.” Tom Kenney, Land Protection Director, Foothills Conservancy of NC

“Representative Blackwell has worked with the Great Trails State Coalition on two efforts. He was the primary sponsor of the “Designate 2023 as Year of the Trail” bill that passed the House unanimously and is expected to soon pass the Senate. He also a co-sponsored a trail funding bill to provide support to non-profits working on state and regional trails. We are grateful for him serving as our champion in the House of Representatives.” Kate Dixon, Executive Director, Friends of the Mountain to Sea Trail and Co-Founder, Great Trails State Coalition

“Representative Blackwell has been a tireless supporter of bringing new recreation opportunities to Burke County, Western North Carolina, and the State as a whole. 490 acres have been conserved in the process of building 20 miles of Fonta Flora State Trail and there is more to come.” Shane Prisby, Interim Planning Director, Burke County Community Development

“Representative Blackwell has advocated for conservation, parks, and trails in his district and promoted the public benefits of conservation and water quality protection throughout the State of NC for as long as he has held office. He has earnestly listened to the concerns of the people and conservationists in his district and beyond, and has backed stable and increased funding for the state conservation funds programs (NC LWF; ADFPTF; PARTF) to ensure our natural, historic, & cultural heritage sites, farms and waterways are preserved for the people of North Carolina now, and for the generations to come. His leadership and foresight in proposing and sponsoring legislation for enhanced public trail funding and for new state trails such as the Wilderness Gateway and Overmountain Victory trails has been invaluable. Representative Blackwell has also championed public conservation projects developed by Foothills Conservancy of NC, including the Oak Hill Community Park & Forest, and Friends of Valdese Recreation, through strong letters of support and by sharing his connections at the local, state and federal levels.” Andrew Kota, Executive Director, Foothills Conservancy of NC

“Representative Blackwell was a primary sponsor of legislation creating North Carolina’s Overmountain Victory State Trail (NCOVST) which follows the paths our patriot militia took after they mustered in 1780 in order to fight the Battle of Kings Mountain–which proved to be a pivotal in our Revolutionary War. NCOVST includes 225 miles of the roughly 330 miles of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail which extends from Virginia and present-day Tennessee over the “highest point of the American Revolution” at Yellow Mountain Gap on Roan Mountain through NC to just south of our border with SC. Representative Blackwell’s leadership with respect to the NCOVST is enabling North Carolina to make–not only an exciting regional and state contribution to trails and conservation – but also an exciting national contribution. This is particularly important as we approach our 250th Anniversary of the American Revolution. We all need to be thanking Representative Blackwell for his leadership.” Bryant Lindsey, Burke County, Overmountain Victory Trail Association Board Member

At home, Representative Blackwell and his wife, Ann, raised their four children in the outdoors teaching them to enjoy and respect our natural resources. From family camping trips (with an annual trip to Black Mountain) to frequent hikes around western North Carolina’s mountains and lakes to being at home recyclers and repurposers to supporting local conservation efforts, the Blackwells demonstrated conservation principles. As a result, their three sons are Eagle Scouts, and have made their own contributions to beautifying and maintaining our natural resources with Hugh and Ann’s support. One son is now a local scout leader – with one of his already an Eagle Scout and another getting closer. Even more special is now that love of nature is being passed on to 10 grandchildren who can say their grandfather is a big reason that thousands of acres have been protected. Talk about leaving a legacy!

The above nomination essay was submitted to NCWF by Beth Heile –
Friends of the Valdese Rec, President and Founder
Catawba River Wildlife Coalition, President (an NCWF Chapter)

Heile was the recipient of the 2018 NCWF Wildlife Volunteer of the Year – Governor’s Conservation Award




Kellex Seating received a 2019 Conservation Award from NCWF for Business of the Year.


Dog Park Match Met

No more driving to Morganton or Hudson for those in eastern Burke County. A dog park is coming to Valdese Lakeside Park! Last fall, Friends of the Valdese Rec (FVR) applied for a grant from the J Alex and Vivian G. Mull Foundation Charitable Fund to help with fencing for a dog park. The grant was awarded contingent on FVR raising a matching $5,000 from the community. To ensure the success of that fundraiser, Farris Insurance pledged another $5,000 if the individuals and businesses met the match by March 31, 2021. The required match was met a week early. Continue reading Dog Park Match Met

2021 Annual Meeting

The FVR Annual General Membership Meeting was held online. The guest Speaker was Ryan Sparks with Foothills Conservancy of NC. A Land and Water Fund grant was used to purchase the Valdese Lakeside Park property and FCNC monitors the land to make sure the restrictions are being followed. (notes from Ryan below)

For the business part of the meeting, the accomplishments from the last year were reviewed.  And, the board members were voted in. Continue reading 2021 Annual Meeting

75 Volunteers Clean VLP

75 Volunteers came out on Saturday, March 13 to carry out trash from old dump sites and tree stands, clean the cove, clear brush and move daffodils that will be destroyed by construction. They were from Rotary Club of Valdese, Church of Latter Days Saints and the community. Thanks to the Town of Valdese for providing the dump truck.

Speaker Moore Helps VLP

Thanks to NC State House Speaker Moore, the Town of Valdese received $51K in funding from NCDOT for the Valdese Lakeside Park project. The park will include an ADA compliant greenway along Lake Rhodhiss and McGalliard Creek for which NC DOT reviewed the plans and supports. Last year, Representative Blackwell contacted Speaker Moore to inform him that Friends of the Valdese Rec, the all-volunteer organization that has been fundraising for the park, had hit a roadblock, and needed help. Over the past 4 years, the non-profit has rallied the community to support this $2.3M project with $825,000 from private donations and $1.5M from state grants. Continue reading Speaker Moore Helps VLP

Wildlife Camera

Have you ever wondered what is wandering around Valdese Lakeside Park? Thanks to our Media Specialist Zakk Heile we know!

In March 2020, Beth Heile commented that she had not been able to get a picture of the otters at the park. Ruth Fletcher Gage suggested a wildlife camera and that she would fund it. As they say, the rest is history.

2020 Highlights Video

Zakk Heile researched cameras and started with a Campark T80. After seeing Zakk’s results posted on social media, John Setzler donated a Moultrie MCG-13270. This allowed setting up in more locations for longer periods of time. The Moultrie provides dates, time and temperature on the video for better tracking of habits. Trail cameras have long been known by hunters, but we are seeing the educational benefits. Continue reading Wildlife Camera

Story Trail

In December, FVR set up a temporary Story Trail at Valdese Lakeside Park. Starting at the main entrance, children can read a book as the walk the greenway to the picnic area. To create the story trail, each page of a book is placed in a protective sleeve and tied with string to a tree branch so it hangs low enough for a child to hold and read. Pages are spaced over the 0.2 mile walk to the picnic tables where they can eat with their family and discuss the book. The project was such a huge hit with the community, the story trail will continue with a new book each week.

Virtual Trail Runs

We did not plan a Trail Race this year because we thought construction would be underway. However, the trails are still clear and we set up routes for you to do virtually. Run a 5K or 10K at a time that best suits you. Run at your own risk!! Post your time on facebook – just a number or your running app screen shot. Run it several days to try to improve your time. Routes

Pop-Up Crafts

It has been hard to plan an outside story time and craft in advance for Conservation Kids. But, it is easy to host a pop up craft station with a few days notice when great weather is on tap. This event was on Sunday afternoon, December 13 at Valdese Lakeside Park. This child is creating an ornament from a log slice and paints to hand on a tree or anywhere. Ranger Rick magazines are also given out.  In November, we made pine cone bird feeders. Participants could have learned about the events on facebook or just been at the park on a perfectly beautiful day!