MCLEANSVILLE — When I first visited the Bold Moon Open Space Preserve in 2012, the road came to a dead end with no parking. No official trail maps were posted, but hand-lettered signs directing hikers to the river remained from its days as a private commune.

A cleared field where commune members used to grow crops was covered with waist-high grass — what naturalists call an early successional habitat, commonly referred to in this area as a Piedmont Prairie.

Paths were cut to the commune’s old chicken house and goat-milking shed through the seas of tall grass that provided food and shelter for birds, butterflies and bees.

Today, with the opening of Bold Moon Preserve just a few weeks away, there are signs leading to the preserve. There’s a gravel parking area and a large kiosk with a map of the property and trails. The Piedmont Prairie is gone, mowed to the ground, with a couple of picnic tables placed around the trees.

“I thought it (the prairie) was beautiful,” said Vance Arnold of the Piedmont Plateau Chapter of the Sierra Club, which has maintained and developed the property under an operating agreement with the county for seven or eight years. “But that’s not their approach.”

Arnold is among the long-time supporters who question the county’s new approach to open-space properties.

“What I’ve heard from a lot of folks is that it (the county) doesn’t know the difference between a park and preserve,” Arnold said.

Should Guilford County nature preserves be used for mountain biking and other recreation?

Some people question Guilford County's new approach to open-space properties. http://bit.ly/1FvmU3i

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Arnold said he was amazed that county crews came to blow the leaves off the trails in the fall.

You heard right. They blow the leaves off a nature trail.

The changes at Bold Moon illustrate the controversy surrounding Guilford County’s new urgency to open to the public the 14 preserves that were established during the past decade as part of the county’s Open Space Program.

The good news is the county finally is devoting staff and resources to get the properties open.

The bad news is that officials are doing it in ways that run counter to program’s long-standing mission.

“They are changing a 15-year program overnight,” said Marie Poteat, a former member of the Open Space Committee who now serves on the County Parks and Recreation Commission.

In the county’s 2015 master plan for parks and trails, Open Space Preserves are now called Passive Parks, with an emphasis on recreational use.

Poteat calls it a betrayal of voters and a bait-and-switch for property owners who sold their land to the county for environmental conservation.

And she has a point.

• • •

Alarmed that the county was rapidly being consumed by development, local naturalists and county leaders began working together in the late 1990s on a plan to protect and preserve undeveloped land. The first Open Space Report, prepared by members of the Parks and Recreation Commission and the volunteer Open Space Committee, was approved by the County Commissioners in 2000.

Voters approved a bond referendum in 2004 to provide $10 million for open space land acquisition. An educational brochure distributed by the Guilford County Parks and Recreation Commission described the purpose of open space preservation as keeping natural land in perpetuity to protect water quality, provide flood control, allow groundwater to recharge, provide noise and visual buffers, preserve wildlife and plant habitats and connect to existing open space.

By any measure, the Open Space Program was a success. Although it was the part-time responsibility of one county staffer for much of the past decade, more than 1,770 acres of land had been acquired by 2014 with the help of the Open Space Committee. This group walked each property under consideration, assessing its value on a number of criteria, and also devoted hours to trail building and other physical improvements.

Alex Ashton, the lone county employee in charge of open space in recent years, worked miracles with the bond funds, paying an average of $6,000 per acre. Many property owners donated land or sold it at below market value because they wanted it to remain undeveloped.

With most of the acquisition complete, the Open Space Committee created a timeline for opening the preserves and started writing stewardship plans for each property that balanced public access — primarily walking trails — with environmental protection by avoiding sensitive plant and animal habitats and ensuring that human activity would not cause erosion or pollution.

“Our plan for passive recreation, accepted by the Parks and Recreation Commission years ago, was for foot traffic,” said Alice Patterson, who served for seven years on the Open Space Committee.

In 2014 the county took over direct operation of its parks from the city of Greensboro and was in the process of forming a parks and recreation department when Ashton left the county for another job that April.

Impatient with the lack of progress in opening the preserves, the county renamed the Open Space Committee a sub-committee and then summarily disbanded it last December.

“They were unhappy that we hadn’t opened all the preserves, but we had no Alex, no money and nobody working with us,” Patterson said. “Then instead of going by our stewardship plans, they hired consultants to do what we were doing for free.”

Now, the county’s definition of passive recreation includes mountain biking, horseback riding, campsites and restrooms — a radical departure from the plans that have guided the program for the past decade.

“We’ve had a change of commissioners, and they want them to be open to more than just trails,” said Thomas Marshburn, director of Guilford County’s Park Division.

Commissioner Alan Branson, who serves on the Parks and Recreation Commission, said the goal is to provide more access and use by the public.

“In some of the large counties, in what they call passive parks, they allows geocaching, disc golf, mountain biking, primitive camping,” Branson said. “There are opportunities for different things on each particular property, but nothing in my mind that would hurt the environment.”

Jack Jezorek, one of the original members of the Open Space Committee in 2000, said horseback riding and mountain biking are two activities that do the most damage to natural areas.

As Marshburn sees it, the current commissioners can do whatever they want.

Other believe the commissioners are overstepping their authority.

“The county is made up of citizens who voted for $10 million for open space,” said Dorothy Darr, a High Point preservationist who has been working on the committee for Rich Fork Preserve, another open space acquisition. “They can’t say or do anything they want with it. They need to honor and respect the citizens’ voice.”

Dot Kearns, a former Guilford County commissioner and school board member who leads a volunteer committee supporting the Rich Fork Preserve, said she was stunned by the sudden change in the county’s position.

“We worked for three years with real joy, on how to best serve the future of this community,” Kearns said. “We never had anything contentious before now.”

• • •

The Rich Fork Preserve recently became the focus of the open space controversy.

Surrounded by subdivisions in High Point, this 120-acre tract was a rare and valuable acquisition for the county, which long had been stymied by price and availability of land in High Point.

It also contained an 1890s farmhouse and outbuildings that illustrated life on a family farm. Generally, buildings are cleared from open space land because its primary purpose is to preserve nature. But because of the farmstead’s historical significance, the Open Space Committee approached Kearns to see if High Point residents would be interested in preserving it.

Since 2012, the large committee of notable High Point residents, which include Darr, Kearns and former High Point Enterprise Editor Tom Blount, secured grants to prepare an application for National Register status and to recommend preservation strategies for the aging buildings.

They worked with the city of High Point to clear and haul away trash, helped secure a donation for a trail to be built on the property and brought in experts from the State Preservation office to evaluate the land and buildings.

Now, they feel like they’ve been hit with a steamroller.

The county plan put forth for the preserve after a meeting with the committee and an online survey includes mountain-bike trails in a section where bikers long have trespassed on the property.

The questionnaire, circulated online through Survey Monkey, was anonymous and open to anyone on the Internet, regardless of whether he or she was a county resident, Darr said. It was impossible to know whether property owners adjacent to the park were notified of the survey, but they do know of one group that was — mountain bikers.

Not surprisingly, the No. 1 amenity chosen by survey participants was mountain-bike trails. Based on the definition of a nature preserve, mountain biking shouldn’t have even been a choice, committee members said.

“The survey was so skewed that we need to have a second survey — a survey that is scientific and not guided in any particular direction,” Blount said at a committee meeting last month. “We have plenty of experts who can do that at High Point University.”

Marshburn defended the survey and emphasized that the plan keeps mountain bikers separate from the rest of the preserve.

“I believe once everything starts coming together, everybody will be happy,” Marshburn said.

But people long associated with the program say they are distinctly unhappy about the decisions and the way they are being made.

There is one more public hearing on the Rich Fork plan, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the High Point Public Library on Main Street. Input at that meeting will be considered, Branson said.

“There is nothing etched in stone as to which direction will be taken on that property,” Branson said. “Rich Fork has strong support from citizens in High Point community, and we’ll be willing to discuss any concerns.”

• • •

Turning a nature preserve into a park is not just a controversial decision. It also may become a legal question.

Many of the landowners sold or donated the land with the understanding that it was to be used solely as a nature preserve.

“That’s exactly what they told me,” said Poteat, who was approached about selling her land three years ago. She opted not to do so but subsequently got involved with the Open Space Committee.

“If I had sold my land, I would feel betrayed,” Poteat said.

Some property owners received conservation tax credits as a result of selling their land, which would require that property to be held permanently for conservation.

Poteat and others said they worry that the county commissioners will move to sell or develop some of the tracts or log the forests for profit.

Nothing could be further from the aims of the program as it was conceived, approved and funded.

Branson said the county was seeking forestry advice on Hagan Stone Park and the Company Mill preserve, where a lot of damage was done during the winter ice storms.

“We’re looking at selective forestry management,” Branson said. “As far as clear cutting and heavy logging, I don’t think you’ll see that.”

There has been “very minimal discussion” of selling certain properties, Branson said.

If the commissioners want to sell or change the use of land that was bought for conservation, they need to hold public hearings and explore the legality before doing so.

In any case, a broader discussion about how the Open Space Program is being transformed is way overdue with the current property owners:

The taxpayers of Guilford County.

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Contact Susan Ladd at (336) 373-7006, and follow @SusanLaddNR on Twitter.

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