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Stretch Of New River Preserved In Grayson County

Owners who once fought proposal to build a dam donate to land trust.

Mouth of Wilson, VA-- Parts of the New River in Grayson County, where residents managed to keep a hydroelectric dam from being built several decades ago, have now been protected by two conservation easements. One of the agreements, along 2 1/2 miles of the river, covers 250 acres of farmland owned by Phil and Charlotte Hanes of Winston-Salem, N.C. The other, along another mile of the river, adds 208 acres of Grayson County farmland belonging to Jerry and Mary Osborne Young. Both families were involved in grass-roots efforts dating to the 1960s to keep Appalachian Power Co. from building the proposed Blue Ridge Hydroelectric Project, which would have left both tracts under several hundred feet of water. Recreation enthusiasts touted the project as a way to bring water sports into the area and develop a major tourism destination. But opponents wanted to keep "The New River Like It Is," in the words of bumper stickers distributed during the dispute. Inclusion of the North Carolina section of the New River in the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1976 ended the prospect of any dam being built on the river. But other types of development began in more recent years, spreading from urban parts of neighboring North Carolina. "Land along this corridor is being cut up and sold in 50-foot-wide lots, forever changing the scenic character of the New River in Grayson County," said Elizabeth Obenshain, executive director of the New River Land Trust. "If we don't start protecting this land, canoeing the New will soon have all the appeal of canoeing the world's longest mobile home park." The New River Land Trust has been working for three years in Grayson County to protect land through conservation easements, which put permanent restrictions on land development and give the owners, in exchange, state and federal tax credits and deductions. The owner keeps title to the property, but the protective easements apply to all future owners. Other groups working on these two easements included The Conservation Fund, American Farmland Trust, National Committee for the New River and Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust. The easements are held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a state agency. "I'm sure glad to see it happen," said Ricky Anderson, owner of Rixey's General Merchandise in Mouth of Wilson. Anderson was in high school in the 1960s when the hydroelectric project was first proposed, and joined in fighting it over the next decade. "I was just one of a whole lot," of protesters, he said. The Rev. Hal Eaton was also part of the opposition to that project. "I enjoyed the involvement, fighting the big guys," he said. "Development runs hog-wild if you're not careful." Phil and Charlotte Hanes raise grass-fed beef in Grayson County. In 2002, they gave the state a 20-year lease on islands on their farm property for camping by people traveling on the New River. The announcement of the gift kicked off the New River Blueway, a canoe "trail" on the river through North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. Hanes, chairman emeritus of the Hanes Cos., remembered picnicking years ago at the Stone Mountain waterfall below Roaring Gap, N.C., when he saw some people dump two pails of garbage into the falls. When he objected, they told him he was trespassing on their cousin's property and should leave. He ended up buying that property and surrounding tracts totaling 1,100 acres, which became Stone Mountain Park, the largest state park in North Carolina. Hanes' later conservation efforts included saving part of Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, establishing a National Audubon Society sanctuary at Pine Island and helping found the North Carolina Nature Conservancy and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. Charlotte Hanes, who runs the farm, said their goal in working with other landowners is to preserve the entire New River. "We've only just begun," she said. "And it's not to stop development -- it's just to manage it." Their conservation easement will connect North Carolina's New River State Park to Grayson County in Virginia. The agreement allows up to six buildings on the 250 acres. The other farm owners, like Phil Hanes, were involved in the decades-ago effort to keep the New River from being dammed. Jerry and Mary Young were among the Grayson County residents who chartered a bus to Washington, D.C., to protest the project. The land in their easement overlooks a stretch of rapids called the Molly Osborne Shoals, named after Mary Young's great-grandmother. The land has been in her family since before the Revolutionary War through land grants conveyed to her ancestors in the mid-1700s. Now, it is guaranteed to remain as farmland.