By Karen Smith Fernandez
One of the best-kept secrets along North Carolina’s Outer Banks is making its debut on the conservation stage. Nestled between Currituck Sound and Highway 12 in Corolla lies a 3,000-acre wildlife sanctuary comprised of marshes, dunes, uplands and the maritime forest that bespeaks Currituck the “way it used to be.” Identified as being in the top 2% of habitats critical to birds impacted by the rising sea level on the eastern seaboard, the Donal C. O’Brien Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center is gearing up to be a premier research facility and living laboratory for state and national researchers.
In 1979, the National Audubon Society received this gift of land from a Winston-Salem businessman. A lease arrangement was made allowing the donor family to continue to privately use the property until late 2010. At that time, Audubon took management of the grounds and structures. Audubon has 41 nature centers across the country. This will be the first in North Carolina.
After taking management, Audubon was faced with the question of how the property might continue to serve the local community, preserve birds and wildlife, become an asset to the state and be operationally sustainable. A long-time private hunting property complete with an historic 1913 lodge, the sanctuary had been meticulously maintained for the thousands of waterfowl that come to rest in the ponds and impoundments during the winter. To help answer questions about how to preserve the historic value while transitioning from a focus on hunting to a focus on conservation and research Audubon set up a series of stakeholder meetings with local residents, county officials, homeowners adjacent to the property, other conservation non-profits, state agencies and wildlife and conservation experts from around the state to hear about the primary interests of each group. Meetings were held in small groups facilitated around a set of questions: What is the highest use of the existing property? What structures should be preserved and why? Is this site suitable for high human traffic? If so, during which seasons of the year? What constituencies should be engaged? In listening to the varied responses, Audubon became better informed as to the priorities, concerns and level of engagement of each of the groups. An additional benefit was creating relationships with individuals who expressed a long-term interest in helping the project come to fruition. The stakeholder meetings also served as a means of gaining trust and respect from local interests who did not have much previous experience with Audubon and its work.
Although answers to the stakeholder questions varied by individual and by group, consensus emerged on the highest priority fairly quickly. This was to maintain the sanctuary as a sanctuary. All stakeholders agreed that the impact of high human traffic on the site would be too great for the 213 species of birds and animals. Use of the landscape was discussed at length once the initial priority was clarified. Stakeholder groups felt that using the facility to conduct research to benefit birds, wildlife and the protection of marshes could be accomplished by creating a living laboratory where students, researchers, program participants and conservationists could stay, live and work. There was also high agreement that the cultural history should be preserved as much as possible through preservation of the historic hunt club lodge and guide’s cottage. Another priority for the local community was the lack of community meeting space in the county leading Audubon to include various sized meeting spaces in the final plans.
An architectural firm was invited to participate in later stakeholder meetings to hear the input of the groups directly. This input was translated into a master plan for the site that took into account sensitive wildlife areas, preservation of the historic buildings, raising buildings above the flood plain, modeling adaptation to sea-level rise, using environmental ethics of restoration and renovation, creating meeting and gathering places, facilitating research and providing lodging for long term stays.
As Audubon moves forward with fundraising to implement the master plan, we know we are standing on solid ground and are offering our local, state and national communities a facility and sanctuary created from a consensus building process involving a wide variety of potential users of the site. We are looking forward to creating an Audubon Center that will preserve local heritage, protect wildlife, increase visitor understanding and awareness of the natural world and the unique Currituck Sound ecosystem, and support research projects that will benefit local, state and national interests.
To learn more about the Donal C. O’Brien Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center, please watch our video: http://pineisland.audubon.org/videos/get-peek-behind-gates and visit our website http://pineisland.audubon.org/.
Karen Smith Fernandez is Director of Development and Communications for Audubon North Carolina. Audubon North Carolina is the state office of the National Audubon Society whose mission is to help conserve and restore the North Carolina habitats we share with all wildlife, focusing on the needs of birds. Audubon North Carolina achieves its mission through a blend of science-based research and conservation, education and outreach, and advocacy.