Lincoln, Gaston and Mecklenberg Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) joined forces to open a forest to the public in North Carolina for forestry and SWCD educational programs, an effort that resulted in state funding for the project.
In 2011, through a partnership with the North Carolina Association of SWCDs (NCASWCD) and the state forestry agency, the three conservation districts met and lobbied county commissioners and state legislators. It took several years, but in 2018, the State Legislature allotted in its budget more than $3 million to construct a 6,000 square-foot education center with public amenities at the Mountain Island Lake Educational State Forest (MIESF). The group hopes to have a grand opening later this year.
“Education is one of the most important things we do, and this facility lends itself to educating our youth to the topic of a diminishing resource,” Mecklenburg SWCD Vice Chair Nancy Carter said.
“Our urbanization is rapidly increasing,” she said. “Giving urban youth an outdoor educational experience and showing them their water source plus educating them to its use and value and its decreasing availability will be enormously beneficial.”
The three SWCDs each border the educational forest, which encompasses approximately 2,000 acres and lines more than 12 miles of Mountain Island Lake shoreline. The forest began as an initiative to protect the Mountain Island Lake watershed in 1997, and the districts quickly saw the potential to draw in landowners, the public and provide an opportunity for youth to explore and learn about conservation that they would not otherwise have had.
Working in groups that also included Carolina Lands & Lakes RC&D and the North Carolina Forest Service, the districts reached out to businesses and legislators to secure the necessary funding. The districts plan to continue working with Forest Supervisor Laura Shidal as the forest education program develops.
“It proves that working together, big things can happen,” said Bill Yarborough, who has worked with the NCASWCD and helped with bringing the opportunity to the districts. “Plans for the facility are fluid according to proposed need. Basically, the sky’s the limit.”
The center has potential to impact 300,000 students within a 30-mile radius, along with allowing other public and SWCD environmental education programming.