Jessica L. Sheffield is Executive Director of the Eno River Association. Jessica holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Education and Parks and Recreation from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and has served as Program Coordinator for the Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions prior to assuming her position at ERA. Before joining Nicholas Institute, she was Executive Director of Schoolhouse of Wonder in Durham, and also served a four-year term on the Board of Directors for Friends of West Point on the Eno Durham City Park.
Blake Johnson is the Interpretive & Outreach Ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers at B. Everett Jordan Lake Dam where he specializes in community outreach and engagement. He began working with the US Army Corps of Engineers at Falls Lake in 2015 and graduated from NCSU with a major in Environmental Technology & Management and minors in Environmental Chemistry & Toxicology and Soil Science. He is now the Interpretive & Outreach Ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers at B. Everett Jordan Lake.
Jessica, it is so nice to meet you. It is so refreshing to learn about an organization like the Eno River Association that tries to protect and preserve a different water resource in our general area – after all our mission and goals are really much the same!
The origin story of organizations can often inform us of their mission and ideals, can you shed some light on how the Eno River Association came to be?
Blake, This is really a great place to start!
Our non-profit organization was founded in 1966 to protect the natural, historical, and cultural resources of the Eno River basin in northern Durham and Orange counties. At that time, the river was listed on the state’s threatened and impaired waterways list. And adding to the problem was that about the same time, the city of Durham had proposed the creation of a reservoir that would have inundated the ecosystem in the Eno river valley.
A group of concerned citizens led by activists Margaret and Holger Nygard organized against the plan to dam the Eno River for Durham’s drinking water supply. This was a long and protracted initiative which began in 1966 and really did not end until 1973, when then Governor James Holshouser welcomed the Eno River State Park into the NC State Parks system. For those that want to learn more, there is an excellent chronology of the efforts to defeat the reservoir on our website here .
It is also important to add that it was the energy sparked by this initiative that led to the formation of the Association for the Preservation of the Eno River Valley – better known as the Eno River Association.
That’s awesome! It’s especially cool for me to learn as Eno River State Park is one of my all-time favorite State Parks. What are some current threats to the Eno River that you all observing right now and what’re your plans for tackling them?
To achieve our vision, the Eno River Association must succeed in protecting and restoring the Eno River from the impacts of urbanization, climate change, and other threats. This involves our investing in deep connections and knowledge building with all the neighbors of the river and watershed- especially communities of color and indigenous people.
Right on, I appreciate that y’all are viewing this not just in terms of conservation, but what the area means to the people and cultures surrounding it. Jessica, are there any plans to protect more land on the Eno?
Blake, we have always maintained a special focus on expanding Eno River State Park, and at present we have protected about 4,200 acres as part of this effort. In fact, in October of 2021 we acquired 96 more acres which will be included in ERSP. However, there are still almost 2,000 additional acres in the ERSP Master Plan left to protect. And then of course there are the miles of unprotected river corridor and tributaries both upstream and down that need to be addressed as well.
You stated you currently protect some 4,200 acres along the Eno. What about other sites you may protect as well?
Our efforts to date have resulted in approximately 7,500 acres of protected land that provide water quality protection, biological diversity, wildlife habitat, recreational and educational opportunities, scenic views, and even productive working farms and forests.
Beyond the state park, we have helped create five local, state, and regional nature parks, including Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, West Point on the Eno City Park, Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve, Little River Regional Park, and our Confluence Natural Area.
Gotcha! That 7,500 acres threw me off for a second but now I understand you all have a real holistic view of the area, with a reach much further than what’s comprised in the State Park. How would you compare the Eno River Association of today to that of 1966, when y’all began?
Blake, today we are so proud to be a nationally accredited land trust, continually acquiring land and securing easements, as well as providing stewardship activities and education programs for the community. We strive to make the outdoors accessible and enjoyable for everyone. More than a million people hike, paddle, swim, picnic, and enjoy the outdoors in the parks we helped establish, and we are incredibly proud of that.
Now from what I understand, the Association owns and protects a number of areas throughout the Eno River basin.
Yes, we own and steward 277 acres of natural areas and 829 acres of conservation easements throughout the basin. They are too numerous to go into much detail here, so to learn more, you may go here .
Are there any areas that you think our readers may be familiar with, just perhaps not familiar with the Association’s ownership of them?
I suspect our Confluence Natural Area in Hillsborough falls into that category. This is our 200-acre preserve at the headwaters of the Eno River. It’s open seven days a week from dawn until dusk for low-impact recreational uses, such as hiking, picnicking, and photography.
This area is so named because the East and West Forks of the Eno River flow from the north to merge here, thus forming the Eno River. This land has a long history stretching back to the late 1700s and remnants of an old mill can still be seen there. This is a Nationally Significant Natural Heritage area, and home to populations of multiple rare plant species. We are thankful to the landowners who worked with us to protect this land, for the funding to make it possible, and for the volunteers who prepared the site for the public.
Something we talk about a lot in water management is how water really is connected to everything. How the river you interact with doesn’t operate in a vacuum, that the river is running through numerous other communities and interacting with other bodies of water. Can you give us a bit of an insight in how the Eno River connects communities?
The Eno River begins in northwest Orange County, flowing eastward for approximately 33 miles through Durham County until, along with the Little and Flat rivers, it flows into Falls Lake, becoming the Neuse River.
In its journey, its waters roll through wilderness, pass by historic mill sites, and by river bluffs covered with flowering shrubs and forbs used by early settlers. It can run as swift as the wind in one place and then gentle as a blowing breeze elsewhere. Upstream, rapids may smash against rocks, and further down, the Eno may meander quietly through serene surroundings. The valley of the river is generally narrow and steep-walled. The rolling landscape is carved and sculpted by swift-flowing water.
You’ve mentioned numerously not just the natural aspect of the Eno River and surrounding areas, but the people aspect as well – how people connect and use these lands. Can you share with us some of the history of our interactions with the Eno River?
Historically, there were pre-Colonial Native American settlements along its banks, followed by the first European exploration of the Carolinas, and to the present day where the Eno River continues to be central to the development of our local cultures. And it is important that I tell you that the Eno River Association respectfully acknowledges that Indigenous people are the original stewards of the land we work to protect. See land acknowledgement statement.
I’ve heard so much about the annual Festival for the Eno y’all put on. Can you tell the readers a bit about the festival?
Since 1980, we have sponsored this event at West Point on the Eno City Park in Durham, drawing thousands of people to the banks of the river for two days around the Fourth of July. There is fantastic live music on four stages, a juried craft show featuring more than 80 of the southeast's finest craft artists, canoe and kayak rentals, craft demonstrations, environmental education for kids, and food from local vendors – all while raising funds and connecting folks with the river’s natural beauty.
The Festival is dedicated to conserving and protecting the natural environment, culture, and history of the Eno River basin, with proceeds supporting the association's work in the upkeep of the river and the purchase of land within its watershed. The first festival was a single-day event in 1980 and drew almost 12,000 people.
That sounds great! Is there any other single event you want to tell us about?
We also sponsor a New Years’ Day Hike. This has been an annual tradition since 1971, bringing in as many as 700 people, during which our members gather together with our staff and board members to take either a short, family-friendly hike or a longer, more adventurous one at Eno River State Park. We end the hikes with conversation, hot cocoa, and popcorn by the fireplace inside the picnic shelter.
Public involvement and communication are so important, what kind of information do you make available to members and the public?
Blake, interesting that you should mention this.
Since the 1970s, the Association has published numerous journals, calendars, and articles exploring and promoting the Eno’s historic roads, mills, communities, and food ways. Topics of past journals include Mills on the Eno, Snakes, Rafting, Picnics and Politics, Water Quality, Trees, the Early Quakers, Margaret Nygard, and The Little River.
In February 2020 we published our first Journal after an absence of 20 years. This one is called Ribbons of Color Along the Eno River: The History of African Americans and People of Color Living on the Eno . This edition contains first- and second-hand stories of those who have long lived in the Eno watershed and is the culmination of a two decades-long effort by the Association to discover, research, recruit writers, and publish this collection. The second Ribbons of Color will be published in February 2022.
We also publish Eno River Currents, a twice-annual newsletter for Association members and friends. Those that are interested can go here to see prior newsletters.
Recently we’ve advocated for Lands Legacy Funding in Orange County, the preservation of land in North Durham, and around important Eno tributaries in Efland.
More information about how to get involved can be found here:
Okay readers, be sure to follow those links after finishing this article! Now, what’re some recent projects you all have been involved with? Just to let our readers know specific projects you work on.
The Eno River Association advocates for parkland and natural area protection, water quality preservation, and community planning that incorporates efficient and environmentally sound practices. Our goal is to increase public appreciation for the environment and awareness of environmental threats, and to change outcomes that would otherwise threaten important natural areas in the Eno River watershed.
Jessica, the shoreline around Jordan Lake was protected from the beginning when the location and size of the impoundment was established, but not so with the lands around the Eno River. Please tell us about your land protection program.
Our land protection program is at the heart of our mission.
Land protection is accomplished by working in partnership with landowners to permanently protect important natural areas. We achieve protection in a variety of ways, including fee simple purchase of lands for parks and nature preserves, as well as the use of conservation easements which leaves the land in private hands while still safeguarding its important natural resources.
We will speak with anyone who owns land in the Eno River Basin about protecting it. It can be as small as 1 acre or larger than 100 acres. We are especially interested in property having river or stream frontage, woodlands, or cultural or historical resources, or if it is within an Eno-New Hope wildlife corridor.
Landowners can sell at market value, donate, or do a combination of the two. In many instances we eventually transfer the property to the Eno River State Park, but we also retain ownership and manage several properties throughout Durham and Orange counties.
Sometimes a conservation easement may be best. These are legal agreements that establish permanent restrictions on use and development of the land while keeping it in private hands. Landowners can use conservation easements to protect their property’s natural, cultural, and historical resources without selling it.
Great explanation! Often times, people outside don’t understand just how agencies like Eno River Association operate to protect lands so this should be very helpful in doing that. It’s important that we don’t just set aside lands, but we actively manage and protect them – this is what it means to be a steward of the land. Can you expand on how the Eno River Association incorporates land stewardship on the Eno?
We are heavily committed and involved with land stewardship on the Eno. Hundreds of volunteers roll up their sleeves each year to help us maintain park trails, clean up the river, plant trees, and remove invasive species. It’s hard work, but it’s a lot of fun!
Our stewardship staff works alongside dedicated volunteers year-round to protect natural ecosystems and increase access to natural spaces in the Eno River Basin. We work to protect Association owned conservation lands, as well as those owned and managed by our conservation partners, such as Eno River State Park and the NC Plant Conservation Program
Excellent, it’s great to hear about volunteers getting so much done – it really shows that people have a heart for this sort of stuff if they’re willing to take time out of their day for it. If someone were to be interested in volunteering, how would they go about doing that and what kind of events would be available to them?
Blake, there are several different programs available, so that anyone that wants to volunteer has a way to assist us. We have Stewardship Workdays, an Eno River Trail Stewards Program, a new Eno River Site Stewards Program, and a Corporate Workday program. Rather than my going into detail on each of these now, it might be better for those who wish to learn more to go here .
As an Interpretive Ranger, I know just how important education can be. What do the Eno River Association’s education efforts look like?
We have programs that empower youth and adults to address such things as land & water quality protection, water quality monitoring, and creating pollinator-friendly habitats in their backyards. We also offer fee-based small-group educational programs delivered by our staff or trained education volunteers. Programs are customizable, and multiple activities may be combined into one session.
To connect youth with a deeper science and conservation experience, the Association offers two intensive, hands-on, feet-wet summer camp programs: Walk the Eno Science and Nature Camp in June, for students ages 8-12, and Eno River Field Station in July for students ages 12-15. Both camps offer outdoor STEM-based learning opportunities paired with recreation along the Eno, to inspire an affinity and passion for science and the natural world.
Eno River Association-led hikes are great ways to learn about the Eno, too. There are hikes each Sunday from January through mid-May, and a special hike in June for National Trails Day. We have a New Year’s Day Hike, a Winter Hike Series, and a Spring Hike Series.
I imagine the ongoing pandemic has been tricky to navigate in these efforts. How did y’all adapt in this time?
Blake, just as everyone reading this interview has done, we’ve been adapting during this time of Covid. We’ve pivoted to provide STEM and conservation information to the public by way of our education videos, publishing hidden gem hikes and information, selling our Eno plant and animal coloring book, creating self-serving stewardship kits, and more.
We have implemented Eno River Coloring Pages, too, where one can learn about the creatures that live in and along the banks of the Eno River. Then there is our Eno River Herpetology Safari, a video safari that takes you through our favorite places along the Eno River to find snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, salamanders, and tadpoles.
Our Fantastic Fish of the Eno is a video journey of discovery up the Eno River highlighting some of the incredible life below the surface. Because the Eno River remains a free-flowing stream, over 60 types of fish live in its waters. Fantastic Fish of the Eno - YouTube
Jessica, you and the Association and your partners, donors, and volunteers, have already done so much to protect the Eno and the lands around it. I’d hate to imagine a world where people didn’t step up to protect such a vital natural area. I do imagine, however, that if someone has made it this far into the article, they may be interested in helping your mission. We spoke on some volunteer opportunities earlier, but could you expand on some other ways people could get involved?
Blake, there are so many different opportunities to help us, and no one will be left out if they want to help. Here are a few ways to help us:
Apply for a position on our Board of Directors and or volunteers for one of its sub-committees, such as for education & outreach, the Eno Calendar, fundraising, and land use & advocacy.
Volunteers to deliver and support our dozens of programs to adults and youth each year. Enthusiasm required; special knowledge about local flora, fauna, history, geology, or related topics a plus!
Represent us at events like Earth Day, Centerfest, or our own Eno Events. Responsibilities include answering basic questions, distributing information about the Association, or supporting a hands-on activity.
Volunteer at the annual Festival for the Eno.Volunteer activities range from taking tickets, pouring drinks, and recycling to running errands, answering the phone, and doing data entry.
If you want to learn more and want to contact us, you can find everything you need to know here .
Jessica, thank you for sharing the story about the Eno River Association and what is doing to protect and preserve an important natural resource here. I hope that all that read this understand the importance of what you do no matter where they might live. And if they wish to see for themselves the natural beauty of the Eno basin, all they need to do is take one of the many established hikes in the Eno River State Park or join an Eno River Association led hike!
The Eno River Association
ADDRESS: 4404 Guess Rd. Durham, NC 27712
PHONE: (919) 620-9099
ENO RIVER STATE PARK: https://www.ncparks.gov/eno-river-state-park/home
All of the photographs used in this interview are courtesy of the enoriver.org