Journeys with George: Did A Comet Cause The Carolina Bays?

George Howard is many things; He is the president of the Raleigh-based Restoration Systems mitigation bank and a conservationist; he is a history buff, a science geek, a cartographer. The 42-year-old family man is a talented amateur artist, a dedicated if unprolific fisherman and a politico whose office photos show him chummy with folks including Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich, Lauch Faircloth and both George Bushes. By Liza Roberts
But what really gets Howard going — gets him talking a mile a minute, playing hooky from work and waking up at night — is his research into a geographical oddity known as the Carolina Bays.

These elliptical, wetland depressions, often rimmed with white, crystalline sand, are sprinkled along much of the North Carolina coast and parts of the eastern seaboard from Georgia to the District of Columbia. To Howard and those who share both his interest and his theory, these droplet-shaped dents (often choked with bay trees, hence the name) were most likely caused by a life-obliterating comet that landed on earth about 13,000 years ago: in geologic terms, quite recently. Howard wants to prove this, and he wants the world to take note.
He also knows how his theory can sound: nuts. (His word.) But it’s not, and he’s not. In fact, the theory has some impressive bona fides: The National Academy of Sciences published a paper he a and a small group of fellow researchers wrote on their findings. National Geographic has produced a documentary on the subject, and Howard and his research team were recently asked to speak on the subject at the prestigious American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. But he also knows that real believing requires seeing. His favorite quotation, borrowed from the state motto of North Carolina, is “Esse Quam Videri,” — “to be rather than to seem.” He wants to show the evidence to prove his case. And so he is delighted for the chance to show an interested party just what he’s talking about: these Carolina Bays, from above.

The Grand Tour

“You ready for the Grand Carolina Bays Tour?” Howard grins as the journey begins. The drive from downtown Raleigh to Fayetteville Regional Airport takes about an hour and a half — not nearly enough time for Howard to begin to say all he wants to say about what we’re about to see. His primer begins with a basic refresher course on the evolution of the planet, veers into mythology, geology, ancient cultures, climate science, dinosaurs, botany; sidesteps frequently into humor and pop culture — and ends up deadly serious.
Howard would be aghast at the idea that it could be summed up, but here goes: 13,000 years ago, he says, a “cataclysmic event” happened when a comet hit the earth somewhere in the vicinity of the Great Lakes. It hit an ice sheet, acting like a big kid’s cannon ball in the shallow end of a pool, throwing off a vast airborne splatter of “flying detritus,” including extra-terrestrial particles that landed as far away as North Carolina. It’s also possible that it created a shockwave that rippled across the landscape, dimpling it in the process, or that a little bit of both happened. Howard says it is certain that the comet decimated everything in its path, including the mammoths and the Clovis people, a well-documented Paleo-Indian civilization.
 It Can Happen Here
Believing that such a thing happened as recently as 13,000 years ago implies that it could happen again, and possibly soon: not something most people are prepared to contemplate. But it’s clear that for Howard, zipping down Interstate 95 and half-listening to CNBC’s market-meltdown report on the radio, this possibility is neither abstract nor unimaginable. He waves his hand out the window, vaguely northward. “You wonder what came flying from that direction and landed here in these fields. Or what hell storm swept through and left these depressions.”
Howard’s fascination with that hell storm, these depressions and what it means for the future of our planet began years ago as a staffer for Lauch Faircloth in the US Senate. Studying a US Geological Survey map of Faircloth’s farm, he noticed something unusual. “What are all those elliptical dotted lines on your farm, Senator?” he asked. Faircloth’s casual reply: “Oh, you know, meteor holes.”

Howard’s “natural ferocious curiosity” took over, and he quickly became an expert on the subject. These “meteor holes,” mostly too shallow to notice at ground-level, are clearly evident from above. First observed in the 1930s when the agricultural programs of the New Deal mandated county-by-county aerial photographs, they caused a sensation at the time. The number (more than 500,000 is the estimate), the symmetry, the fact that they all point in the same direction (toward Lake Michigan) — all gripped the public imagination, culminating in a 1933 piece in Harper’s Monthly entitled “The Comet That Hit the Carolinas,” by Edna Muldrow. But the scientific establishment ultimately pooh-poohed the comet theory, arguing that the bays were caused by wind, water and erosion over time, and the subject fell off the public radar.
If Howard has his way, that will change.

The Bays from Above
When we arrive at the airport, the fall weather is unseasonably warm. The skies are bright and clear, with a slight breeze, like a day in May. Our chartered plane is miniscule. It’s so small we have to climb over its balsa-thin wings to pop into our seats through a Plexiglas-bubble hatch-top. We barely fit inside. Takeoff feels like racing down an empty street in a Matchbox car, until the thing lifts off — then it’s just like floating.
We meander above the airport before crossing over I-95 and heading south into “Bays Territory.” At first, nothing jumps out. And then it does. Two blurred, white-sand-edged ellipses, about 100-yards long and 30-yards wide, chase each other across a field of soy. Another one nearby forms a visible swamp. A ghostly pair of ovals lurk in a cleared field. Once you know what to look for, they’re impossible to miss.
“They’re everywhere,” Howard says gleefully, snapping away with a long lens camera. The jigsaw of green fields, punctuated here and there by these graceful, sandy shapes, is a beautiful sight, but as we head over the border into South Carolina, Howard points out a less lovely landmark: “Make sure not to miss the big purple lagoons of pig piss!” He’s not kidding. Countless pig farms pepper the horizon, their low-slung, silver-roofed pig houses each accompanied by a large, strangely purple, chemically treated lagoon of waste.

But as our flight path takes us over the Cape Fear River, the Bays are once again quite noticeable. They’ve multiplied, lying side-by-side now, then in rows, then in clusters. The chalk-white sand that surrounds many of them stands them out in stark relief; others are made distinct by the darker color of vegetation within their borders.
Bays are fertile ground, Howard points out. Blueberries in particular grow well in them. So do carnivorous plants: Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, sundews. “The highest concentration of Venus flytraps in the United States are found in Eastern North Carolina,” he says. (According to the International Carnivorous Plant Society, this is in fact the case.) Is he implying that these plants literally … came from Venus? “Well,” he demurs, “that’s far into the realm of speculation.”
But Howard does not consider it speculation to point out the other extra-terrestrial evidence he says are harbored in the Bays: tiny magnetic spheres, iridium-laced grains and nanodiamonds. The chemical composition of these materials, as the science press has noted, is most similar to lunar rocks and meteorites. Howard describes nanodiamonds as a veritable diamond dust that lines the bottoms of the Bays — too minute to have any value except as proof of great carbon impact. He regularly sends Ziploc bags full of the stuff to Arizona geophysicist Allen West and to a lab at UC Berkeley for testing. In the past four years Howard estimates he’s sent off more than a ton of sand from the Bays.

Looking Skyward
But despite his efforts and those of his fellow researchers, including scientists from the University of South Carolina, UC Berkeley, Brown University and UCLA, among others, the endorsement of the broader scientific community remains elusive. “It’s hard for people who are steeped in their own paradigm to accept a radically different way of viewing the past,” he says. He also points to a lack of understanding, knowledge and communication between different areas of the science establishment. As Howard puts it, “the astronomers won’t look down and the geologists won’t look up.”
If Howard’s efforts bear fruit, we’ll all start taking a cautious look skyward, and not a moment too soon. “There should be more attention paid to planetary protection,” he says. “We’re way behind the curve on that. The number of people working on it could staff a McDonald’s.” NASA does provide the global majority of research funding into near-earth-object detection and disaster prevention, but Howard’s not alone in fearing it’s not nearly enough.

“I am a catastrophist,” Howard concedes. “I think that things have happened in the past that were horrible and were recorded for us. We don’t recognize the tune, but it’s all there in myth and fable.” And, he is certain: It’s also recorded in the elliptical, wetland pocks that speckle our coastline; it’s recorded in the magnetic, extra-terrestrial matter he says is embedded in the Mammoth tusk that hangs over his television; it’s recorded in the diamond dust he FedExes across the country. The evidence is all there, he says, you just have to know how to look for it.
Indeed, Howard’s wife kids him that he sees Carolina Bays everywhere he looks, even in the shapes of the raindrops on the windshield of his car. He smiles at the thought, forcing himself to end the day-long tutorial as his Grand Carolina Bays Tour draws to a close. “You ain’t even heard half of it,” he says, and he’s not kidding.

Raleigh’s Restoration Systems Banks Mitigation Credits For A Cleaner World
By Liza Roberts

In the loft-like spaces of a renovated 1892 textile mill behind Raleigh’s Seaboard Station, Restoration Systems is banking on a cleaner world.
For a decade now the firm has been restoring wetlands, streams and other ecosystems — then “banking” that acreage in the form of mitigation credits it can sell to developers, which are required by law to offset projects that adversely impact the environment elsewhere. The firm owns or manages 33 sites comprising more than 6000 acres of wetlands and 25 miles of creeks, streams and rivers.

“In the last 10 years we have planted more than a million trees that will never be cut,” says Restoration Systems President George Howard. Most of those trees are in North Carolina, where the firm has concentrated much of its work. But Restoration Systems is looking outside the state to Maryland, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas and Virginia for wetlands and streams to restore. They’re also jumping into the emerging mitigation banking areas of water quality and endangered species.
One reason to diversify is the continuing struggle of competing with the state of North Carolina for wetlands mitigation work here. The state has built-in advantages over its private competitors, namely the ability to collect payment from developers (much of the time its own Department of Transportation) before restoring any wetlands. For Restoration Systems, it’s the other way around. Not until it has restored a wetland can it sell credits.
“The state has as much business building its own ecosystems as it does growing its own corn,” Howard says. He claims the private sector — “someone with skin in the game” — does the work faster, better and more efficiently than the government can manage.

State government headaches aside, Howard says he’s bullish about his company’s future. He and his partners John Preyer and John Skvarla are planning to grow the company, possibly adding five more “dirt chasers” to the current staff of 15. They’re excited about the new terrain they’re exploring in places such as the prairie land of Texas. “It’s absolutely fascinating for any of us to get into a different state, in a different landscape,” he says.
And they’re eager to do more in the area of water quality mitigation, where they’re reducing phosphorous and nitrogen in the Neuse River and selling credits to developers who put down impervious surfaces from Cary to New Bern. Also new is endangered species mitigation, whereby the red-cockaded woodpecker, for instance, can be protected via credits preserving its habitat of old-growth, longleaf pines in the Sandhills of North Carolina.

“In a new industry like this,” Howard says, “we’d be selling ourselves short if we didn’t take advantage of opportunities wherever they occurred.”

New Rule Lets Builders ‘Bank’ Efforts to Restore Wetlands

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration announced requirements on Monday to encourage builders to compensate for destroying wetlands or streams by paying to restore or create wetlands elsewhere.

The approach, which emphasizes linking losing and replacing wetlands across broad watersheds, has been contentious since it was proposed two years ago.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers announced final approval of the rule, saying it would help replace wetlands and streams.

“It will accelerate our wetlands conservation effort by establishing a more effective, consistent mitigation process,” said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the environmental agency.

The regulation encourages expanded “mitigation banking,” in which a developer can obtain a permit to destroy a wetland or stream if the developer agrees to invest in creating or enhancing wetland elsewhere. That approach has resulted in new businesses specializing in wetland creation.

Although the regulation establishes standards for lost wetlands, it emphasizes a preference to “bank” alternative wetlands.

Environmentalists worried that the policy could encourage wetlands destruction and overall loss.

“There’s nothing in here that says we’re going to improve mitigation,” Julie Sibbing, a wetlands expert at the National Wildlife Federation, said. “It’s just going to be easier and cheaper. And the cheaper it is to mitigate, the more economic it is to buy land that has wetlands on it and destroy them.”

Ms. Sibbing said that mitigation banking was already being used, but that the new rule would make it difficult to argue that a developer should be required to provide on-site preservation.

A wetland often is important to a local ecosystem, and “it doesn’t help to move it 100 miles away,” Ms. Sibbing said.

With the new rule, the business of creating alternative wetlands is likely to prosper. George Howard, who owns a business in that field near Raleigh, N.C., said “the vast amount” of alternative wetlands involved not creating wetlands, but restoring lost wetlands.

The environmental agency and the corps said the rules would increase public participation.

Aging Infrastructure and Ecosystem Restoration

As a result of recent infrastructure failures, particularly the tragic failure of the Interstate-35 bridge in Minnesota, the US Senate passed the National Infrastructure Improvement Act (NIIA), which would create the National Commission on the Infrastructure of the USA. The commission’s broad mandate would be to assess the nation’s infrastructure and its ability to meet current and future demands.  Such policy development coincides with ongoing efforts to manage and restore degraded ecosystems.  This provocative intersection of aging infrastructure and environmental degradation provide unprecedented and largely unappreciated opportunities for ecosystem restoration.

Convergence of Phenomena

The United States is at an unusual juncture of three growing phenomena.  First is the widespread decay of infrastructure.  The 20th century saw rapid growth in population, the economy, and infrastructure (see chart).  Many structures have been in place for 50 years or more, and increasing portion of national infrastructure is now approaching or exceeding it’s originally intended design life and will require over $1.6 trillion to reach acceptable levels of safety and function (1).

The second phenomenon is the degradation of the environment and loss of associated ecosystem services (2).  Substantial ecological degradation can be attributed, at least in party, to infrastructure expansion.  Roads increase sediment erosion, fragment habitat, and facilitate the spread of invasive species (3).  Dams and levees restrict fish migration and have drastically altered river flow regimes (4).  Offshore platforms discharge waste, release atmospheric pollution, and compete with commercial fishing (5). 

Third is the burgeoning of ecosystem restoration as both a science and an industry (6).  To date, restoration has often been limited in scale, and its effectiveness is frequently unclear (7).  Nevertheless, there is growing demand, political will, and funding for restoring degraded ecosystems (7, 8).

Restoration via Decommissioning

Decommissioning can take several forms, including full removal, partial removal of key components, or abandonment.  Publicly versus privately owned infrastructure may differ in decommissioning procedures and ability, but all are subject to the National Environmental Policy Act and equivalent state laws, although these laws generally do not facilitate ecological restoration.

On rivers, dam decommissioning is increasingly common, whereas levee decommissioning is rare.  Of the 79,000 dams in the United States, 3500 have been rates as unsafe, collectively in need of $30 billion for rehabilitation, repair, or removal (1).  Levee inventories are less clear, but estimates exceed 25,000 km (9), many with unknown structural integrity (10).  To date, 600 dams have been removed, primarily for safety and economic reasons.  Dam removal is followed by rapid recovery of invertebrate, fish, and riparian vegetation communities (11).  Levee decommissioning, often abandoning breached levees, reduces economic demands of levee reconstruction while improving floodplain habitat and water quality (12).

Of the 6 million km of roads in the United State, 885,000 km are on public lands maintained by federal land agencies, a portion of which are rarely used (13).  The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), with 250,000 km of roads over 50 years old, estimated its maintenance backlog at $10 billion for 26% of system roads (13).  The USFS decommissioned 7900 km of roads between 2002 and 2005 and has identified almost 300,000 km for possible decommissioning over the next 40 years (14).  Decommissioning decreases economic liabilities but is also an important tool for restoring forest ecosystems (13).

In U.S. federal waters, there are 3900 offshore oil and gas platforms, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), about one-third of which are idle (15).  Federal policies require that platforms be removed within 1 year of lease expiration, and 2700 platforms have been removed.  Removed platforms have been primarily shallow-water platforms and mostly disposed of onshore (15).  Costs and environment impacts of removing deep water platforms are substantial.

Full platform removal has drawbacks, including environmental impacts and loss of the potential ecological values of the structure as an artificial reef (16).  Research shows that platforms facilitate the expansion of coral populations in the GOM (17) and act as refuges for juvenile fish, increasing fish production off the coast of California (18).  Rigs-to-Reefs Programs allow reuse of decommissioned structures as artificial reefs.  Through 2004, 190 retired platforms were dedicated for fisheries enhancement, which reduced decommissioning costs and led to $20 million in industry donations to state environmental management trust funds (15).

Department of Defense (DOD) facilities pose an unusual challenge and opportunity.  Of the 257 million ha of federal lands in the United State, 10 million ha belong to the DOD (19).  Access restrictions have made military bases some of the richest ecological reserves of any of the nation’s public lands (19).  Through the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program, 400 military sites were closed or reclassified between 1988 and 2002.  To date, management of 21 bases on 445,000 ha has been transferred from the DOD to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become National Wildlife Refuges (e.g., Jefferson Proving Ground became Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge).

Perhaps the largest combination of infrastructure management and ecosystem restoration is the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP), an effort to restore the 2.3 million-ha watershed and its ecosystem (8).  Hydrology in the Everglades is manipulated through hundreds of control gates, thousands of kilometers of levees, 2900 km of canals, and dozens of pump stations, which largely continue to function well.  The CERP is based on infrastructure modification and partial removal to move the ecosystem to a more natural and sustainable configuration through a 40-year, $20 billion project.

Policy Directions and Exit Strategies

Infrastructure policy should do more than fund projects; it should set national priorities and initiatives.  The National Commission on Infrastructure would set such strategic priorities and consider infrastructure financing, rehabilitation, and maintenance.  Rehabilitation under the NIIA includes considering removal of infrastructure that is deteriorated or no longer useful.  When infrastructure has been decommissioned, ecological restoration has been a side benefit.  Prioritizing decommissioning sites based on a combination of ecological, economic, and safety concerns can benefit multiple stakeholders, possibly reducing overall decommissioning costs (15).

Infrastructure decommissioning is likely to occur during discrete windows of opportunity.  These may be policy-related (e.g., expiration of a dam license), natural (e.g., flooding), or through deliberate legislation (e.g., CERP).  However, political will for such expenditures is difficult to maintain, particularly during political transitions (20).  A less broadly applied funding mechanism is the use of market-like principles in which infrastructure decommissioning is used to generate credits to offset environmental impacts elsewhere (see figure above).

The greatest lesson from current aging infrastructure is the need for exit strategies, which vary greatly among infrastructure types.  Policies for decommissioning dams are surprisingly rare and vague (11), whereas policies for decommissioning offshore platforms are unambiguous (15).  Because the costs of decommissioning and cleanup for infrastructure can be substantial, more explicit policies should require provisions for decommissioning as part of infrastructure license or lease terms, perhaps similar to that for offshore facilities, where bonding requirements are specified and based on the estimated cost of full removal.

Any infrastructure policy approach must confront the national conundrum of pressing infrastructure problems and continuing environmental degradation.  Specifically, a National Commission on Infrastructure should squarely face decommissioning as a viable option, and the environmental benefits gained through such decommissioning should be assessed as definable benefits and leveraged when possible and practicable.

From Science Magazine, VOL 319, January 18, 2008

Martin W. Doyle,1* Emily H. Stanley,2 David G. Havlick,3 Mark J. Kaiser,4 George Steinbach,5 William L. Graf,6 Gerald E. Galloway,7 J. Adam Riggsbee8

Healing a Stream

As part of its environmental offsets, PTI has restored a Guilford County stream.

By Taft Wireback
Staff Writer

LIBERTY — It’s the southernmost piece of the FedEx project, located 30 miles from the package-sorting hub under construction at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

No cargo planes will ever land there. But plenty of blue herons, meadowlarks and woodpeckers touch down regularly near the unnamed stream on Smithwood Road in southeast Guilford County.

The restored stream on the Causey Farm is what’s known as an “offset,” an environmental project that compensates for damage done by large-scale construction elsewhere in the same river network.

“We’ve met all the success criteria here,” said John Preyer, co-owner of the firm that restored the stream and about 40 acres of adjoining land. “We were able to encompass the entire stream system, so there’s no great risk of development ever affecting its water quality.”

Even the farm’s 100 cows seem content with the outcome, though they can’t drink from or mill about the stream anymore. Instead, they drink from a high tech watering fountain that provides a more reliable supply of cleaner water.

PTI paid roughly $2 million for the site and the work to repair 46 acres of stream and adjoining land, damaged by decades of cattle use.

“It had been absolutely trashed,” said George Howard, Preyer’s partner in Restoration Systems of Raleigh and Greensboro.

Year after year of grazing cattle had turned the banks into bare mud flats with no trees or other significant vegetation. The small stream was contaminated by the upchurned dirt, erosion and animal wastes.

Now, literally thousands of saplings from 17 species of tree grow on either side of the creek, including ash, black gum, hickory, oak and poplar.

Wildlife making use of the once denuded stream include 44 species of birds, plus raccoons, deer, frogs and snakes.

The project’s success is an example of what can happen when the federal government’s “no net loss” policy, developed in the 1990s, is carried out effectively, Howard said.

 

The policy requires such projects as new roads and airport expansions to limit environmental damage at the building site itself, then make up for unavoidable harm with other efforts to improve water quality.

PTI Director Ted Johnson said that in addition to the Causey Farm, the airport spent more than $6 million on hub-related environmental projects, including those at or near the airport that deal directly with water pollution from the hub.

In addition to Restoration Systems, key players in the Causey Farm project included Thomas Trauger, nephew and heir of the farm’s late owner, former school teacher Eloise Causey Butler.

Trauger and his two co-heirs sold a conservation easement to Preyer’s and Howard’s firm, an agreement that allowed them to fence off the stream so cattle could not disturb it anymore. PTI then paid Restoration Systems for the restoration.

“I like the idea of making sure it will stay as it is, not turning every nook and cranny into a housing development,” Trauger, a lawyer in Washington, said of the 450-acre farm.

Another important player was farmer Bruce Humble, whose family has leased the pasture and stream from its owners for years.

Trauger and his co-heirs wanted to continue that relationship, telling Restoration Systems that Humble had to be satisfied with the redesign or it was a no-go.

Humble and his late father worked with the environmental engineers, although they were skeptical about the concept.

Today, three years after the project’s completion, Bruce Humble says it’s a mixed bag: “They took about 35 acres of pasture, but it’s like a lot of things where there’s a trade-off.”

The positive part of that trade-off is the two wells and the water fountains Restoration Systems provided. The stream dried up during this summer’s drought, but Humble says the wells provided his herd with clean, fresh water.

In addition to digging the wells, technicians working for the Preyer-Howard company spent about four months returning the stream to something like its natural shape.

Farmers had spent generations straightening the stream’s meandering course, turning it into the equivalent of a milelong water trough. Good in some ways for cattle, bad for the stream.

Gushing water eroded the bank after each rain, carrying pollutants into nearby Stinking Quarter Creek, no doubt helping the creek live up — or down — to its name at times.

As a guide for what the reworked Causey Farm stream should look like, environmental designers used a small stretch of it that had not been used for farming.

They planted similar trees, brush and other plants along the newly twisting course. They added rock formations to reinforce the stream’s new direction of flow.

Then they sunk biodegradable netting into the banks to prevent erosion until the vegetation could put down strong root systems to serve the same purpose.

“Eventually, there’s going to be a gorgeous (tree) canopy all through here,” Preyer said recently.

Most of what was added came directly from Mother Nature, but there also is an electronic component to the project. Underground monitoring equipment provides regular read-outs on the health of wetlands next to the stream.

Another essential part of the project involved fencing off most of the reborn stream to keep out the cows.

Workers built several bridgelike fords so Humble’s herd could move easily between pastures on either side of the creek.

Restoration Systems will continue monitoring the site for several more years to ensure steady growth for the required five-year period, which experts say is long enough to ensure long-term viability.

So far, Preyer said, scientific monitoring by electronic gauges and by technicians over the past two years has shown the stream much healthier and the wetlands thriving.

But the newly arrived dragon flies, woodpeckers and deer didn’t need a scientific report to figure that out all by themselves.

Contact Taft Wireback at 373-7100 or twireback@news-record.com  

Lowell Mill Park Officially Dedicated

Local public figures and residents gathered Friday at Lowell Mill Park to celebrate the county’s recent ownership of the land in a dedication ceremony.

By Jamie Hodges
Staff Writer

The park rests within a 17-acre plot, which surrounds the Little River at Lowell Mill Road just outside of Kenly. It used to be owned by Restoration Systems, a Raleigh-based mitigation company. But since it’s been turned over to Johnston County, the park is now officially open to the public.

Kenly Town Council will hold a public hearing on Oct. 8 to get public in-put on whether the town should take over the park. Commissioners have asked the town if it would like to take it over and receive the $140,000 endowment that goes with the park for upkeep.

“This is a great opportunity for the city of Kenly and all of Johnston County,” said George Howard, co-founder of Restoration Systems. “I hope they take advantage of it.”

Along with the land transfer, Restoration Systems has also provided the county with a private endowment of $140,000 to be used for the park’s maintenance.

“Without the endowment, I seriously doubt that we would have been able to take over the park,” said County Manager Rick Hester.

The county has now offered the park, with the endowment included, to the town of Kenly.

Kenly has scheduled a public hearing on Oct. 8 during its monthly town council meeting to further discuss the issue.

“We don’t know if any action will be taken,” said Kenly Town Manager Scott Shelton. “It’s an information gathering meeting. We have to determine the benefits against any negative issues we may have to deal with it.”

The park is located at what used to be Lowell Mill Dam, which was demolished in Dec. of 2005. Work on the park, which is approximately two acres, started last October.

The dam was removed despite strong protest from several Kenly area residents who were concerned that it would negatively affect their fishing.

Adam Riggsbee, an environmental scientist who works for Restoration Systems, said the removal of the dam will have an overall positive effect on the ecosystem of organisms living in Little River.

“Before the dam was removed, it blocked off several spawning sites for the American Shad fish,” said Riggsbee. “And it formed a lake-like effect that made it hard for river dwelling organisms, such as mussels who live at the bottom of the river, to survive. Now that it is no longer there, the river has returned to its natural free flowing state that will benefit the environment.”

Selma resident Doug Tetrick, who lost his son, Paul Tetrick, to a fatal swimming accident near Lowell Mill Dam in 2000, was glad to see the park erase the last physical remnants of a spot that caused his family so much tragedy.

“It’s a great way to turn a negative event into a positive one,” said Tetrick. “I’m glad to see that the dam is gone. It was a dangerous spot. A lot of people died here, including my son. It’s a big relief.”

Tetrick’s daughter, Morgan Tetrick, who lives in Smithfield, said she hopes Friday’s dedication ceremony will put some closure on the tragic event.

“It just looks so much better now,” she said as she glanced across the bank of the river. “It doesn’t even look like the same spot where my little brother died. It looks so nice with the park next to the river. Paul would have loved this scene.”

County Commissioner Tony Braswell also hoped that Friday’s ceremony will allow the community to put the past behind.

“I think this park represents a great opportunity for everyone involved,” said Braswell. “I understand all of the controversy behind it. But it’s time to move forward.”

Endangered fish back in the swim

CARBONTON — A little fish got a big break when science paired with business two years ago to remove an old hydroelectric dam on the Deep River in this rural community near the Lee-Moore county line.

By Nomee Landis
Staff Writer

The construction of the dam in 1921 divided a group of minnow-size fish called Cape Fear shiners. The dismantling of the dam has removed the obstacles — a concrete structure and nearly 10 miles of deep, stagnant water behind it — that have kept the populations of the little fish separated for decades.

Now it looks as though the little shiner is returning to an area of the river that had been a dead zone for this species, along with other species that prefer free-flowing river habitats.

That is good news because the little shiner is a federally endangered species. The two populations need to reunite and, in polite scientific terminology, exchange genetic material. In other words, they need to produce a lot of baby Cape Fear shiners in order to move the species further from the possibility of extinction.

A Raleigh-based company called Restoration Systems dismantled the dam with money from the state Environmental Enhancement Program.

The program’s purpose is to protect or restore ecosystems, such as wetlands and streams, to compensate for damage to similar areas during highway construction.

On Thursday, environmental scientists from The Catena Group, an ecological consulting firm under contract with Restoration Systems, waded into the Deep River at the site of the old dam to check for Cape Fear shiners. They are monitoring the fish’s progress in repopulating the river upstream of the old dam site.

Shay Garriock and Tom Dickinson, scientists with the group, each held the wooden handle of a seine and dragged the net through shallow, riffling areas of the river. After walking with the outstretched net for several strides, the two turned it upright to examine their catch.  

With each pass, they captured a dozen or more minnow-size fish that all looked remarkably similar to untrained eyes.

Tim Savidge, an environmental supervisor with The Catena Group, named each as he sifted through the catch of silver fish in the center of the net: juvenile largemouth bass, speckled killifish, satinfin shiner, Piedmont darter. I

t took a few minutes of fishing in several spots in the river before the trio found what everyone was looking for: a single Cape Fear shiner.

Adapting to change

The endangered shiners prefer riffling areas of the river, where the water is bubbling and shallow. Last year, Savidge and his group marked the areas of the river upstream of the former dam where they thought riffles would develop. They are going back this year to check those sites for fish.

So far, their research indicates that the fish has been quick to respond to the changes in the river.

And the changes in the river have been dramatic. The Deep has fallen more than 10 feet in many places upstream of the dam site. Plants are growing in large swaths that used to be covered by water. The river has returned to its narrower, more meandering path.  

Savidge said workers have noticed young freshwater mussels in the river upstream of the dam. The mussels, like the shiners, prefer swift, shallow waters and do not thrive in the lake-like waters behind dams.

The Deep River is a highly dammed waterway. Many old mill dams, most now defunct, remain on the river between its headwaters near High Point and its confluence with the Haw River below Jordan Lake. Together, the Haw and Deep rivers form the Cape Fear River.

In 2002, a state task force ranked the Carbonton Dam fourth on a list of dams in the state that should be removed for environmental reasons.

Adam Riggsbee is an environmental scientist and a dam removal authority with Restoration Systems. He said the state wanted the dam removed to improve the quality of water in the river, to improve habitat for the fish species there and to restore the riverbanks to their natural state.

Park plans

The process of removing the old dam began in fall 2005.

The old powerhouse still stands alongside the river just downstream of the N.C. 42 bridge. It will remain. Both it and the adjoining park will be turned over to the Deep River Parks Association this month. Restoration Systems is providing an endowment for development and upkeep of the park.

When state officials said that the dam would be removed, fishermen strongly resisted the idea. Dismantling the dam meant losing a miles-long, deep fishing spot that was accessible to larger boats.  

Dickinson, one of the scientists with The Catena Group, said the largemouth bass are still there, and the fishing is still good. He said he and others paddled the river upstream of Carbonton in a canoe last year, casting along the way. With nearly every cast into the deeper pools, Dickinson said, the party hooked a big fish.

A 25-mile stretch of the river and its tributaries will be monitored for five years to ensure that the project achieves the goals established before the dam’s demolition.

Scientists will continue to test the chemistry of the water and the presence of aquatic insects, both of which indicate a stream’s health. They will monitor the progress of the freshwater mussels. And they will continue to look after one special little silver fish.

Staff writer Nomee Landis can be reached at landisn@fayobserver.com or 486-3523. 

Endangered minnow bounces back

CARBONTON – Biologists say an endangered minnow is rebounding in central North Carolina, thanks largely to demolition of a dam.

Scientists first identified the Cape Fear Shiner in 1971. It was then known only in small reaches of the Haw and Deep rivers in Randolph, Chatham, Lee, Moore and Harnett counties.

By late 1987, the fish was on the federal Endangered Species List because of dwindling habitat caused by a long history of dams. The dam that was taken down was part of a hydroelectric plant built in 1921. It closed in 2004 and the dam was removed by 2006.

Officials say removal of a dam near Carbonton in southern Chatham County has resulted in one of the biggest ecological success stories in North Carolina.

The yellowish minnow with black stripes and pointed fins has been found in a 10-mile stretch of the Deep River. Biologists believe the fish had not inhabited that area in at least 80 years.

Raleigh-based Restoration Systems, which coordinated demolition of the dam while partnering with the N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program, continues to monitor 58 sites along the Deep River to track its restoration.  

"The speed at which this recovery has taken place is what stands out," said Adam Riggsbee, an environmental scientist with the company.

Company co-owner George Howard said the project has breathed new life into the once-sluggish river. "Unfortunately, it’s such a lonely part of the world, not many people get to see it," Howard said. "But it really is a wonderful thing to see."  

Dam removal good news for endangered fish

CARBONTON — The Cape Fear Shiner is a yellowish minnow with black stripes, pointed fins and a hard-luck past.

By Taft Wireback
Staff Writer

But with the help of an environmental firm that has offices in Greensboro, the fish that seldom exceeds two inches in length is becoming one of North Carolina’s biggest ecological success stories.

Biologists working for Restoration Systems have found the endangered species in a 10-mile stretch of the Deep River it hadn’t inhabited in 85 years or perhaps even longer, thanks to the removal of an old dam near Carbonton in southern Chatham County.

"The speed at which this recovery has taken place is what stands out," said Adam Riggsbee, an environmental scientist with the company, which has headquarters in Raleigh and a branch in Greensboro.

Restoration Systems coordinated demolition of the dam through early 2006 in partnership with the N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program. It continues to monitor 58 sites along the Deep River as part of the project, keeping track of what happens to a once-impounded river when restored to its free-flowing state.

The project has breathed life into what had been a sluggish, bloated stretch of river, said company co-owner George Howard.

"Unfortunately, it’s such a lonely part of the world, not many people get to see it," said Howard, a Greensboro native. "But it really is a wonderful thing to see.

"You can think of the tiny yellow-and-black minnow as a sort of miner’s canary that swims, a bellwether for the health and restored vigor of the water that surrounds it.

The tiny minnow was unknown to science until 1971, when it was identified in a very limited range that included small reaches of the Haw and Deep rivers in just five counties — Randolph, Chatham, Lee, Moore and Harnett.

By September 1987, it already had been placed on the federal Endangered Species List because of its dwindling habitat.

The minnows need water of decent quality riffling in shallow depths over gravel, stone and boulder bottoms.

The dam that was demolished was a small, hydroelectric operation built in 1921 and shut down in June 2004. But the site, near the line between Chatham and Lee counties, had hosted a series of dams stretching back into the 19th century.

So biologists couldn’t be sure how long two separate colonies of Cape Fear Shiner had been separated by one dam or another and its 10-mile stretch of backed-up water, too deep and slow for the minnow’s liking.

Meanwhile, on either side of the dam, the isolated populations of Cape Fear Shiner were dwindling. Removing the dam produced results aimed at fixing that problem faster than anyone had been willing to hope, Riggsbee said.

"If you provide the habitat, the theory is that you should get the species back in place," he said. "That’s exactly what has happened here in less than two years. The river responded very quickly and so did this key species."

Last year when aquatic biologist Tim Savidge sampled the numerous testing sites along the newly emancipated stretch of Deep River above the former dam, he found no Cape Fear Shiners.

But he did see a lot of the riffled habitat starting to form, the faster and shallow water over a rocky bottom that is home to the little minnows.

"Then this year, we picked up numerous Cape Fear Shiners at multiple sites throughout that 10-mile section," said Savidge of the Catena Group, an environmental consulting firm that is helping Restoration Systems with its follow-up duties.

State officials are still awaiting the company’s annual report, documenting the endangered shiner’s return. But as a sign of improving water quality and nature revived, it is welcome news, said Tad Boggs of the state’s ecosystem enhancement program.

"Assuming it’s accurate, it represents a win-win situation for what our program is designed to do," said Boggs, whose agency has supervised about 700 such projects statewide since its creation four years ago.

Restoration Systems works on such projects as the dam with state and federal officials to provide "mitigation credits." The credits are bought by public and private agencies to offset environmental damage done by such developments as new dams, roads or neighborhoods in the same region.

Among other things, credits from removing the dam at Carbonton allowed the state Department of Transportation to build or expand a number of roads in this part of the state.

Contact Taft Wireback at 373-7100 or twireback@news-record.com 

Park Could Become Town Property-Kenly Council Will Consider Options

KENLY — Town officials are considering taking over Lowell Mill Park near Interstate 95 from Johnston County.

Herald photo by Michael McLoone

The county has owned the park for a few months, said County Manager Rick Hester. But Johnston is now looking to hand the 17-acre property over to Kenly.

“It would be an asset for someone to have,” Hester said.

The Kenly Town Council will discuss the possible park transfer during a public hearing at 7 p.m. Oct. 8. “I’m intrigued with the possibilities the park offers,” Kenly Town Manager Scott Shelton said. “We’re hoping to get some input from the public.”

But it’s too early to say what Kenly would do with the property if it acquired it, Shelton said.

Ernie Wilkinson, a former Kenly mayor and the current director of Johnston County Animal Services, has been involved with the park for years.

A dam that used to be at the site was removed a few years ago, Wilkinson said. Restoration Systems, the Raleigh-based natural resources conservation company that used to own the land, gave the county a $140,000 endowment for the park’s upkeep.

“There’s no tax money in that thing,” Wilkinson said of the park.

The property is adjacent to a lot that was added to town by satellite annexation.

“I personally think this is an asset to the county,” Kenly Councilman Scott Turik said at last week’s council meeting.

“It would be a shame to let it become an eyesore. If we ever do have growth out there, this could be a centerpiece.”

Wilkinson said he would like to see walking trails on the property, which already features picnic tables and a kayak launching pad.

Taking over the park could be beneficial for Kenly also because the town could use the interest from the endowment for other recreational purposes, Wilkinson suggested.

“It’s a mighty lucrative deal,” he said.

Herald Staff Reporter Sarah Nagem can be reached at 934-2176, Ext. 137, or by e-mail at snagem@nando.com. 

Ice Age Ends Smashingly: Did a comet blow up over eastern Canada?

Evidence unearthed at more than two dozen sites across North America suggests that an extraterrestrial object exploded in Earth's atmosphere above Canada about 12,900 years ago, just as the climate was warming at the end of the last ice age. The explosion sparked immense wildfires, devastated North America's ecosystems and prehistoric cultures, and triggered a millennium-long cold spell, scientists say.

Sid Perkins

At sites stretching from California to the Carolinas and as far north as Alberta and Saskatchewan—many of which were home to prehistoric people of the Clovis culture—researchers have long noted an enigmatic layer of carbon-rich sediment that was laid down nearly 13 millennia ago. "Clovis artifacts are never found above this black mat," says Allen West, a geophysicist with Geoscience Consulting in Dewey, Ariz. The layer, typically a few millimeters thick, lies between older, underlying strata that are chock-full of mammoth bones and younger, fossil-free sediments immediately above, he notes.

New analyses of samples taken from 26 of those sites reveal several hallmarks of an extraterrestrial object's impact, West and his colleagues reported at the spring meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Acapulco, Mexico.

Samples from the base of the black mat yield most of the clues to its extraterrestrial origin, says Richard B. Firestone, West's coworker and a nuclear physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley (Calif.) National Laboratory. Some of the particles there are small, magnetic grains of material with higher proportions of iridium than are found in Earth's crust, he notes.

Also in the mat's base are tiny lumps of glasslike carbon that probably formed from molten droplets of the element. These lumps, as well as little spheres of carbon with a different microstructure, contain nanoscale diamonds formed under intense pressure.

A host of unusual geological features, collectively known as Carolina Bays, hints at the cataclysm's location, says team member George A. Howard, a wetland manager at Restoration Systems, an environmental-restoration firm in Raleigh, N.C. Around 1 million of these elliptical, sand-rimmed depressions, measuring between 50 meters and 11 kilometers across, scar the landscape from New Jersey to Florida. In samples taken from 15 of the features, Howard and his colleagues found iridium-rich magnetic grains and carbon spherules with tiny diamond fragments similar to those found at Clovis archaeological sites.

The long axes of the great majority of the Carolina Bays point toward locations near the Great Lakes and in Canada—a hint that the extraterrestrial object disintegrated over those locales, says Howard.

Because scientists "haven't discovered a large, smoking hole" left by the event, the object that blew up in the atmosphere probably was a comet, says West.

Heat from the event would have set off wildfires across the continent, the scientists suggest. The heat and shock from the explosion probably broke up portions of the ice sheet smothering eastern Canada at the time, they add. The flood of fresh water into the North Atlantic that resulted would have interrupted ocean currents that bring warmth to the region, and thick clouds of smoke and soot in the air would have intensified cooling across the Northern Hemisphere.

The inferred date of the event matches the beginning of a 1,200-year-long cold spell that geologists call the Younger Dryas, which in its first few decades saw temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere drop as much as 10°C.

From Science NewsVol. 171, No. 22, June 2, 2007, p. 339.