Eddie Bridges may be the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame’s most unique inductee.
Although he once (1953-57) played football and ran track for Elon College, he didn’t make his mark on the gridiron or cinder paths. The 86-year-old Morganton native has spent the last 43 years doing something more important than catching passes or winning races.
When Governor James B. Hunt appointed the Greensboro businessman/outdoorsman to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission in 1976, Bridges found an agency in dire financial straits with a meager $9 million budget. He quickly thought of a new idea.
Bridges knew N.C. sportsmen and sportswomen willingly would support fees for lifetime (hunting, fishing, trapping) licenses, WRC magazine subscriptions and donations that would remain untouched in an endowment fund with only generated interest used to supplement the agency’s budget. Bridges convinced fellow commissioners to support his new idea, the N.C. Wildlife Endowment Fund. During the last four decades, the fund’s principal has grown to $123,489,718 with $29,373,494 available for wildlife projects, dwarfing the budget when Bridges arrived in Raleigh.
When his two six-year WRC terms ended, Bridges returned to Greensboro and started a non-profit, the N.C. Wildlife Habitat Foundation. Based on the same model as the Endowment Fund, the NCWHF has supported dozens of conservation projects as a costsharing partner with donors. Projects have included “Adopt an Acre” (to add land to N.C. game lands), bluebird and wood duck boxes, a Caswell County waterfowl impoundment, wildlife seeds distribution, a Jordan Lake largemouth bass study, bobwhite quail habitat at the Sandhills Game Land, restoration of mountain trout streams, Cataloochee wildlife habitat, fishing piers at public lakes, a major black bear study and the Bur-Mil Park Wildlife Education Center.
Bridges’ latest project is his most ambitious and first venture into creating saltwater habitat. The NCWHF already has arranged donations and matching funds that total $1 million for the New River’s “Oyster Highway.” Partnered with Jacksonville’s Stormwater and Habitat Manager, Pat Donovan-Brandenburg, the foundation has helped fund a 26-mile-long series of oyster reefs and oyster transplants in the eastern N.C. river. Workers have deposited tons of baby oysters (“spats”) at these reefs. The goal is to create clean water for humans and marine animals, improve saltwater fish habitat and provide a healthy inshore population of oysters.
Bridges’ work hasn’t gone unnoticed. He is the only American to earn four national conservation awards and two state honors, including the Chevron Conservationist Award (1989), the Sol Feinsteine Environmental Award (1991), the N.C. Governor’s Award as Conservationist of the Year (1993), Budweiser’s National Conservationist of the Year (2004), N.C. Sportsman Magazine’s 2008 Sportsman of the Year and Field&Stream Magazine’s 2012 Hero of Conservation award. The NCWHF executive director, who draws no salary, donated the $50,000 Budweiser Award to his organization, plus $5,000 and a Toyota Tundra truck from Field&Stream.
In a state known for its natural beauty, Eddie Bridges has done more for habitat conservation, wildlife and the state’s fisheries than any native North Carolinian
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