Walnut Creek Preserve: Where horses and conservation coexist

Published 10:00 pm Saturday, October 31, 2015

Bob and Babs Strickland with Tryon Hounds Huntsman Trey Bennett (Photo by Don West)

Bob and Babs Strickland with Tryon Hounds Huntsman Trey Bennett (Photo by Don West)

Life in Our Foothills, November 2015
Written by Judy Heinrich
Photographs by Judy Heinrich and submitted

Horse people are lucky to have many options for property in the Carolina foothills, including individual farms, shared central barn facilities, farm-ette neighborhoods, and equine developments with neighborhood trails or green space.

One development that took a unique approach is Walnut Creek Preserve, located at the north end of Polk County between Mill Spring and Lake Lure. It combines generous farm sites with 50 miles of riding trails through more than 1,500 acres of forest, fields and creeks, all protected under permanent conservation easements with the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC).

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Walnut Creek Preserve has been something of a best-kept secret since its creation about 11 years ago. And while it clearly has the quality of a professionally designed community, it has actually been a very personal labor of love for its owners and developers, Bob and Babs Strickland.

That journey started in 1992 when the Stricklands bought 95 acres of former apple orchards on Grassy Knob Road to be their personal horse farm. The couple had no ambitions beyond clearing the old trees for pasture – doing much of the work themselves – and building their home and a barn for the gaited trail horses they enjoy riding.

But in 1997 they lost their daughter, 22-year-old Anne Elizabeth Suratt, in the crash of a small plane. Anne had just completed her fourth year at the University of Illinois, studying environmental sciences. She aspired to be an astronaut and had recently been selected as one of 14 students nationwide for a training program at NASA’s Goddard Space Center.

“In addition to wanting to be an astronaut, Anne was very involved in education for children of elementary school age,” says Babs. “She was interested in getting kids excited about looking at earth from space and studying land masses to see evidence of human activity.”

The Stricklands decided they wanted to memorialize Anne by creating a 100-acre educational forest in her honor adjacent to their farm, on land that was part of a large Champion Paper forestry tract. Although Babs had a contact with Champion through a fellow attorney at her law firm, the plan did not come together before Champion was bought out by International Paper in 2000.

“Then on Valentines Day in 2003 everything changed,” according to Babs. “We found out that International had put the whole tract – about 2,000 acres – up for bid. We didn’t have the money to buy the whole thing ourselves but we felt like we were supposed to.

“We had only one week to get a bid in, so I sent them a letter and our bid, which was millions less than the minimum they wanted. I also asked for a year to close on it.”

The Stricklands found out about three weeks later that International had not accepted anyone’s bid. “About this same time, the county commissioners were worried about too much growth in the county so they put a six-month moratorium on development, which was a blessing to us.”

That development slowdown gave the Stricklands more time to pursue funding for the property as well as to think in detail about what they would like to create. Babs’ brother, who was in charge of the family’s business, decided to put some money in and provided the backing of the company as a guarantee. With that backing in place, the Stricklands were able to arrange enough financing to buy the entire tract.


Working the land

“We closed in December 2003 and immediately started working. We spent the first year literally picking up tires,” Babs recalls. “The forestry land had been open with no gates, so people had been dumping garbage there for many years, including lots of tires. We picked up 650 tires.”

Working so closely with the land gave the Stricklands more insight on how their vision could be realized.

“All of the land ‘bowls’ down to Walnut Creek, which runs for two-and-a-half miles through the property, along with many of its tributaries,” says Babs. “The upper edges of the property were more open so could more easily be turned into pasture, and had beautiful mountain views.

“We felt that the property was right for an equestrian conservation community, with farm sites at the higher levels circling protected forestland below,” said Babs. “For density we decided on 25 farm sites max, averaging 20 acres each. There will never be more than that.”

They created six entries into Walnut Creek Preserve from exterior roads. Each of the small interior roads has only a few homes along it, minimizing through-traffic.

Having decided where the farm sites would be, the Stricklands began working with PAC on conservation easements for what they hoped would ultimately be around 1,500 acres of wildlife preserve. They did their first easement for 900 acres in 2005, put another 500 in two year later, and added the last easement in 2013, ending up with 1,535 acres under permanent conservation easement.

Babs had committed to 25 miles of permanent riding and hiking trails through the preserve and the number has since reached 50 miles. The trails were built on the property’s old logging roads and smaller harvesting trails, all of which were cleaned up, had volunteer trees removed, and were planted with grass. The Stricklands did much of the work themselves and still personally mow trails and other open areas on his-and-her tractors.

Within the preserve, four concrete-and-stone bridges cross Walnut Creek, while smaller bridges and many culverts cross some 25 creeks and tributaries.

Every trail leads to another, there are no dead-ends, and all home sites have direct trail access. There are also trailer turnarounds at the end of each interior road so that residents can trailer to the farthest points instead of always starting at home.


The heart of the preserve

At the preserve’s southwest corner is the Anne Elizabeth Suratt Nature Center. It features a native plant garden outside, displays of flora and fauna, a herbarium of labeled and mounted plant specimens from the forest, and a large classroom with windows overlooking the garden, preserve and mountains.

With its adjacent 1500-acre “outdoor classroom,” the center has become a popular site for monthly nature education programs such as Using Native Plants in Your Garden & Landscaping; Prey and Predator Relationships; and Identifying Trees in Winter. The programs are produced in conjunction with PAC and are free to the public.

“The goal was to honor Anne by having a place in the county where people could come and learn about nature and the local environment – particularly to have that in the northern part of the county because FENCE is a wonderful facility in the southern part,” Babs explained. “We work with PAC, which doesn’t have a space like this of its own, and take advantage of the trails to walk out and see the things speakers are talking about.” Information about upcoming programs at the Nature Center can be found at pacolet.org.


A vision realized

Twenty-two farms sites have been created at Walnut Creek Preserve, with three more potential sites held in reserve. More than half of the sites have been sold and several residents have built their farms and are enjoying the preserve and its trails.

Property owners share in the commitment to the preserve through an annual fee that goes into an endowment being created by the Stricklands to ensure that the needs of the forest are taken care of in perpetuity.

Babs likens the annual fee to that of a golf course community. “What this offers residents is not only the valuable piece of land they own, but the permanence and integrity of the preserve that will be here to enjoy forever. They don’t have to worry about that ever going away.”

The Stricklands’ years of hard work in creating Walnut Creek Preserve have been honored by both Polk County (2012) and the North Carolina Land Trusts (2015), and Babs is now president of PAC. But what she appreciates most about the journey from their original 100-acre vision to a 2,000-acre reality is the support they received while completing it.

“I am deeply grateful to the many people who helped us along this journey,” she says, “allowing us to save the land and create a beautiful place for horse lovers. We could not have done it without their help and trust in us and our mission.”

For more information, visit walnutcreekpreserve.com.