By Amber Veverka
A curlicue of a trail winds around a ridge, skirting towering beech and red oak trees, leading visitors to a watery site rich with more species than any other wetland in the North Carolina Piedmont.
Welcome to the West Branch Nature Preserve in Davidson, the region’s newest nature preserve – and one that nearly didn’t happen.
The 91-acre site once was to become an extension of Davidson’s Summers Walk neighborhood. When developers sought a sale during the 2009 downturn, Davidson Lands Conservancy Executive Director Roy Alexander brought the site to the attention of Mecklenburg County, which bought it with voter-approved bond funds. The land, Alexander knew, was more than just open space. The site cradles a 23-acre wetland that is a rarity.
“It’s home to every single amphibian and reptile that belong to the N.C. piedmont,” Alexander said. And the wetland has one species, the Eastern ribbon snake, that has never been recorded elsewhere in Mecklenburg County.
The plan was to build residences right up to the wetland’s boundary and “lots of runoff would have gone right into the wetland,” Alexander said. “It would have taken away the breeding habitat for most of the amphibians and reptiles.”
Before Mecklenburg County stepped in, Alexander and the Davidson Lands Conservancy and town of Davidson were working hard on negotiations to save the property. “It was just an incredibly fortunate window of time we were working on it,” Alexander said at the time. “The real estate market was causing the developer to be willing to sell.”
Now, the preserve boasts stands of paw paw trees, thick with green, oblong fruit this time of year, and slopes full of spring-blooming flowers. A grant from Carolina Thread Trail allowed a natural-surface trail to be built through the preserve. During a recent grand-opening guided hike, local experts that included Mecklenburg County Natural Resources Manager Chris Matthews pointed out the diversity of plant and tree life in the preserve – everything from jack-in-the-pulpit to wild ginger to southern hackberry trees to stands of shortleaf pine.
At the wetland, a bullfrog thrummed its rubberband-like sound while tiny mosquito fish darted among sedges. “This is the coolest spot in the whole place,” Matthews told the crowd of hikers.
The wetland itself is fairly recent. In the 1920s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers turned the meandering West Branch of the Rocky River into a straight-flowing water course, draining the surrounding flood plain, Alexander said.
As late as the 1990s, the area was a plowed farm field. Then beavers felled trees around the West Branch and the flood plain began to fill with water.
And somehow, Alexander said, the wetland-loving species found the site and made it their home. “To have it happen with such diversity in such a short time is just amazing,” he said.
Alexander said the West Branch Nature Preserve is “the most significant” piece of property the Davidson Lands Conservancy has helped save. “Wetlands don’t get nearly the respect they deserve,” he said. “For this area, it’s a huge one.”
From Charlotte, take I-77 north to exit 30 toward Davidson. Stay right at the fork in the road to Griffith Street. Turn right onto N. Main Street/N.C. 115. At Main and Concord Road in downtown Davidson, go east on Concord Road 1.9 mi. to a roundabout. This roundabout is the confluence of Concord Road, Davidson-Concord Road, and East Rocky River Road. Continue straight through the roundabout onto E. Rocky River Road. Proceed for 1.3 mi. to Shearer Road. Turn right.
There’s no parking lot, but visitors can park along Shearer Road at the West Branch bridge near the road’s end.
You’ll see a sign for the nature preserve. Bikes and horses are not allowed on the preserve’s natural-surface trail and signs to that effect will go up soon. Ultimately a bicycle-friendly paved trail – the West Branch Greenway – which now ends where the nature preserve begins, will continue along the West Branch edge of the preserve into Cabarrus and Iredell counties. Also in the future: A nature center and parking lot, to be built on a part of the site that mostly scrub, away from key animal habitat.