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What is Save RDU Forest?

The landscape around the 105-acre “Odd Fellows” property is serene during winter.

Although it’s right by Interstate 40, a quarry is just feet away, and although construction equipment have begun to move into the area, the landscape is still a healthy forest, with old hardwoods reaching at the sky and ferns underneath.

In March, the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority’s Board leased the property to Knightdale-based Wake Stone Corp. for mining over 25 years for $24 million. The Umstead Coalition and others say the agreement would not be able to generate as much revenue for the airport as projected, and that more alarmingly, a lease for a quarry cannot be a real lease since the land will not be returned in the same condition. The Odd Fellows tract as it is, with all of its trees, water and animals, will cease to exist.

“Save RDU Forest” is the ongoing effort by the Umstead Coalition to save the property.

“We have been actively involved since 2016,” said Jean Spooner, chairwoman of the Umstead Coalition. The coalition preserves the 5,600-acre William B. Umstead State Park just north of the tract. “The Odd Fellows tract has, forever since the beginning of the park in 1934, been on the identified land acquisition for the park,” Spooner added.

In 2017, the Conservation Fund along with the coalition offered $6.5 million for the tract, and Wake Stone also submitted its own proposal. They were both rejected by the airport. This year, however, the airport changed its mind.

The Umstead Coalition says the airport does not have the authority to make this significant lease since it is public land, owned by Raleigh City, Wake County, Durham City and Durham County — the four municipalities that own the airport. The airport says it has the authority to make such business moves without prior approval and says the Federal Aviation Administration agrees. The FAA in December 2017 had also approved RDU’s massive $2.7 billion “Vision 2040” master plan.

In November, a Wake County superior court judge sided with the airport. The coalition says it will appeal the decision.

The Umstead Coalition’s fight with the airport has drawn attention from local residents who have clamored to do activism work on the issue. Chief among them has been TORC, or Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, who wants to build “mountain bike” trails on the property.

As “Save RDU Forest” continues, the green and red signs from the Umstead Coalition have slowly made their way to the western part of the Triangle, Durham and Chapel Hill. But here, they are still few and far in between.

This is the first story examining the “Save RDU Forest” issue. It’s a story in three parts. First, the fight between the coalition and RDU heated up this week over an 8-mile-long chain link fence that would surround the quarry. Second, I go on a winter hike with Jean Spooner to see the forest and Crabtree Creek. Third, who is TORC?

The fight heats up

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“Save RDU Forest” signs are all around the property of Randal and Tamara Dunn. The quarry will be just beyond their backyard.

The same day the Umstead Coalition urged state environmental regulators to deny permits for a proposed 8-mile chain link fence, the airport went on the offense with a video and blog post.

The airport’s proposed 8-foot-tall chain link fence, complete with three strands of barbed wires and a “tension bar,” would surround the Odd Fellows tract, or the site of the proposed quarry. The coalition opposes it because of the 15-foot clear-cutting that would occur on either side of the fence and because it would sever a state parks trail at two points.

The fence is estimated to cost $2 million. RDU Director of Media Relations Stephanie Hawco said in a phone call that it is the first phase of a multi-phase project, the size and cost of which is unknown at this point.

When pressed over e-mail for further comments on why the fence is necessary, Hawco replied:

“Your questions read more like an editorial than a journalist’s effort to gather facts. It appears that you have already drawn conclusions about this issue, as evidenced by your telling me over the phone that you already know the answers.”

[I said that I had seen the details in the proposal.]

“Should you be interested, the facts are as follows,” she continued. “Activists are spreading misinformation about RDU’s proposed perimeter fencing as a scare tactic to further their agenda. RDU is working with North Carolina State Parks to ensure that the perimeter fence does not block access to Umstead State Park or the multi-use trail that crosses airport property. The proposed perimeter fencing is in the design phase and is intended to enhance security and keep trespassers off airport land.”

The questions asked over e-mail were: Why is the fence necessary? The airport has not had problems with trespassers in the past. Why is this now a problem? Why is the first phase of the fence encircling, and protecting the Wake Stone project, and so it’s not actually protecting the airport? What’s the airport’s statement on Umstead saying that the fence would sever the Reedy Creek Multi-Use Trail in two locations?

And it seems like the plan for the fence was hastily put together only to protect the Wake Stone project. Why is that?

According to the proposal on RDU’s web site, contractors were given a site tour in November, but the proposal also can be found on other web sites from as early as July. The fence is the latest of RDU’s accelerated building efforts following the approval of its $2 billion “Vision 2040” master plan by the FAA in December 2017.

Since 2017, RDU has also increased funding in general. According to the airport’s financial reports, its capital contributions increased a whopping 987.6 percent from fiscal year 2018 to 2019, jumping from $4.9 million in federal and state funds in 2018 to $53.8 million in 2019.

A hike in the forest

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Oaks, beeches and pines in the forest here.

On a bright winter day, I meet Jean Spooner, chairwoman of Umstead Coalition, to begin what turns out to be a beautiful and eye-opening hike through the woods to Crabtree Creek.

I had spoken with Spooner earlier in a two-hour-long phone interview and wanted to see the area myself. She agreed to meet with me the following week.

We park by the home of Randal and Tamara Dunn, who have been vocal in opposing the quarry that would be built just beyond their backyard. “Save RDU Forest” signs in red and green line the front of their property. Just that morning, Spooner says, trucks began rolling into a newly paved path just by the Dunns. They were new neighbors, and wholly unwelcome.

As the construction machinery rumble about, Spooner brings out a map of the area to situate where we are and give me a rundown on where we will go. She has worked at Umstead since the 1970s and is a woman fully in charge. Dressed in a down jacket and a hat, she is ready for the hike and smartly remembers a water bottle, which I do not have. The morning coffee will have to go a long way that day! We start walking, and she pauses briefly to check if I’m wearing decent hiking shoes. I do have that at least.

We keep away from the pink-ribbon markers on trees, which are signs of the boundaries of the Wake Stone project, and follow the state park system’s yellow dots.

She helpfully tells me to watch for the sinkholes where tree trunks have rotted away. “People have broken legs in those things, so be careful,” she says. Although 65 years old, Spooner moves quickly and steadily through the woods.

As we walk, Spooner remarks on the new 8-foot-tall chain link, barbed-wire fence planned by the airport, pointing out where it would go. The issue is clearly on her mind. “It’s a prison fence,” she says. “[Reedy Creek trail] is one of the most popular trails in the state, and they did not even consult the state.”

 

The forest here is mostly oak trees, not as many pines as other areas in the Triangle. “All this hardwood is very rare,” Spooner says. “It’s quite impressive.”

She estimates some of the oaks to be about 60 years old, and she says this forest, the way it looks in winter, is a healthy forest.

The landscape is beautiful and calm. Although we could hear the machinery and the occasional blasting, it still feels spiritually elevated. It has seen less traffic from hikers and bicyclists than many other natural places in this area in recent years, and still feels protected. It feels like how other natural places felt for a long time, and still felt just a few years ago.

There are beech trees, with their copper leaves this time of year. Tall oaks. Some pine trees. And underneath the trees, there are ferns. In some parts of the landscape, there are pretty quartz stones dotting the ground like nature decided to casually throw out some jewels.

We could not hike on the Odd Fellows tract. But from photos people have shared on social media, it looks just as or more beautiful than this area. Another hardwood forest, with wildflowers, and frogs and salamanders.

As we hike, we see construction equipment from Wake Stone start moving into the woods uphill from us. We turn and keep following the yellow dots downhill toward Foxcroft Lake. The lake has a small dam made from rocks that have become covered with moss and ferns.

The Odd Fellows tract is named after the Odd Fellows, a fraternal order that had owned it before it became airport property. And Boy Scouts have used the land since then. I look at the lake and wonder how much fishing and swimming have taken place there. Pink ribbons are in the trees just in front of us. Under Wake Stone’s proposal, Foxcroft Lake would cease to exist. It would become part of the quarry.

The landscape here is more stark than Umstead Park. If Umstead feels like a big, lush tree, with branches going every way, then the land in this part feels like a tree that has grown straight up, as if survival was the only thing.

As we climb up the hill away from the lake, Spooner tells me of the stark history that is part of the land here.

The area had been a 1930s Depression-era public works project. Trees were clear cut and the land had been used for farming. She points to the deep cuts in the landscape that during rainstorms would be rivulets flowing down into the lake. Those happened because of erosion, Spooner says.

 

At the top of the hill, we see the trail beside Crabtree Creek and go down. I have never seen the creek before and remark at how wide it is. “It’s called a creek but it’s really a river,” Spooner says.

Crabtree Creek begins in Cary and winds through the neighborhoods and shopping centers of Cary before getting to Lake Crabtree, which was created by damming the creek. After that, it snakes up north under I-40. The portion we are hiking runs along a side of the existing quarry by Wake Stone that is right by I-40 and Harrison Avenue.

In an earlier phone interview, Spooner had pointed out something she knows from working on Umstead all these years. “The airport drains into Crabtree Creek. The airport actually drains into Umstead Park. All the de-icing, the thawing, the park processes all of that.”

Two hikers pass us. I say hello to the woman and she smiles and nods. The scant crowd here, at least on that day, was gentle and friendly.

Spooner points out to me wild ginger growing. We come upon boulders, 15- to 20-foot-tall, sheer-faced, that jut out and stand boldly just by the creek. The soil around them is dark, with delicate green plants growing in their shade.

 

The other side of Crabtree Creek is a 200-foot buffer, sloping up to the border of the existing quarry. The treeline for that is visible.

The buffer proposed for the new quarry on this side of the creek would be just 100 feet. In that case, Crabtree Creek would become a creek suspended above two quarries.

We then hike to a tributary stream where people have seen run white from the existing quarry over many years.

“We also risk that the creek might collapse, and that would be catastrophic,” Spooner said in the phone interview.

Imagining how that would feel to hike that, 200 feet to a quarry on one side, 100 feet to another quarry on the other – it felt like it would be virtual, like hiking there would be a videogame or virtual reality. There would be woods on either side of the river where you stand, but it’s not quite real. You are actually hiking the peak between two quarries, and the woods in the buffers make you think it’s a landscape like any other river with watersheds feeding into it. But that’s not quite the truth.

There was another thing about it that my mind cannot quite process. It’s different from a river being bounded by urban structures. A city, even with all of its pollution and activity, is still real life feeding into a river, the people on its banks affecting it with all of their movement and way of life. When the city becomes cleaner, so does the river. But a river above two chasms is not quite alive. It’s like a river only in the abstract, going through the motions until it can get to the other side. What is a river without the earth around it, alive and feeding into it?

How had the business and political dealings in the Triangle led to this point?

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On the hike back, Spooner shares with me more of her knowledge on watersheds.

“It would be an environmental tragedy to destroy this,” she says.

“The worst thing you could do is to level the land by a river,” Spooner says. “The land recharges the stream slowly. If you level it, you lose all of that vegetative sponge for the water. You lose Mother Nature’s natural control of flooding.”

Three and a half hours after we started, we end up back at the Dunn’s. As we stand there talking, another truck laden with dirt and rocks rumbles out. It goes up the road, turning into another newly paved path.

Who is TORC?

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A tributary stream that people say they’ve seen run white.

When the Conservation Fund offered to buy the property in 2017, it included the Umstead Coalition in its proposal, and also a smaller organization. That was TORC, or the Triangle Off-Road Cyclists.

From the press release for the Fund’s purchase of the land, Dave Anderson, advocacy chairman for TORC had said, “We see this as a win-win solution for both RDU and the community, and we’re excited about the opportunity for expanded hiking and mountain biking opportunities in such a popular, central area.”

However, Anderson revealed during a phone interview this week that TORC would have contributed no money toward the purchase.

Anderson also could not respond on why the organization wants to turn the property primarily into use for mountain bikers.

When asked how much his organization has grown in the past few years, and also why, Anderson could not answer.

Were people perhaps drawn to “off-road cycling” because of safety concerns on regular roadways during a politically and socially tumultuous time? Anderson had no response to that.

Anderson pointed out the organization has more than 5,000 members on Meetup.com. “Do you know Meetup.com?” he said. “We’re probably the biggest Meetup group in the Triangle.”

Actually, there is at least one Meetup group that’s bigger than TORC. The Triangle Hiking & Outdoors Group has 10,225 members.

The airport has made concessions to TORC. Aside from the Odd Fellows tract, the airport has promised mountain trails at another airport property.

When asked if since the property is owned by the public, that maybe people and groups other than TORC would want to have a say in its use in the future, Anderson bristled. “We’ve put $13,000 into this. We’ve gone to public meetings,” he said. “We’ve funded a documentary.”

When asked why “mountain biking” has become so popular in this area when the Piedmont terrain is mostly not suitable for it – North Carolina, after all, is not Colorado – Anderson carefully explained, “Well, mountain biking just means riding on dirt.”

Actually, a look at Atlanta-based Southern Off-Road Bicyclists Association, the parent organization of TORC, reveals the organization’s mission is in part to promote the building of what are traditionally considered to be mountain bike trails, simulating mountainous terrain.

SORBA celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018 by launching a new website. During a membership drive recently, it gave away a brand new $2,000 bike. The nonprofit organization has also applauded the work of local chapters in building new tracks, including a new pump track at Charlotte’s Colonel Francis Beatty Park. The sandy, wet land already had an existing bike track.

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