Troubled Water: Why the World’s Oldest Wetland Trees Aren’t in a State Park

A century ago, a riverboat captain traveling down the Black River to trade goods in Wilmington would do anything possible to avoid getting tangled in the knotted burls and fallen limbs of the Three Sisters Swamp. Today, the swamp is one of the river’s greatest draws — and one of the world’s most ancient natural sites.

When the water levels are just right, a kayak can squeeze through the swamp’s winding channels into a grove of bald cypress trees dating back thousands of years.

When they were first discovered in 1985, they instantly became the oldest-known wetland trees in the world. The oldest-known tree today, as published in a May report, is at least 2,624 years old.

The river holds its own history for residents of nearby Ivanhoe, a 264-person town which sits halfway between Fayetteville and Wilmington. For 59-year-old Chris Barnhill, it’s been everything from a place to splash and swim around with childhood friends to a bathing spot to recover from hard days of work farming. Today, it’s a visible symbol connecting him with the Barnhills who’ve lived on its shores for four generations.

“It’s been a place for everybody: A place to go, hang out, meet, picnic,” he said. “It’s just been a wonderful asset to the community, and everybody’s enjoyed it forever.”

It’s exactly the kind of place you might expect to be made into a state park. North Carolina’s legislature moved to do just that two years ago with HB 353, a bill that would have established the Black River State Park alongside three less-developed natural areas.

The proposal seemed like a no-brainer: The world’s oldest wetland trees would be protected by the state government, and North Carolinians would have increased access to one of the most unique and beautiful places in the world.

The bill was filed in the state House on March 14, 2017. It was approved by the House three weeks later on April 6 and was referred to the Senate later that day.

Everything seemed smooth, except for one thing: Nobody living along the river knew there was any proposal at all.

Paul Turlington was the first Ivanhoe resident to hear about HB 353, and even he didn’t know about it until after it had passed in the state House. He thinks he wouldn’t have heard about the Black River State Park proposal until it was passed into law if not for a phone call from a concerned staffer at The Nature Conservancy, a national nonprofit which owned most of the riverfront land south of the swamp.

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