Outdoors: Conservation at the crossroads

As Western North Carolina becomes ever more developed, a large tract of wild land has come up for sale, creating a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to conserve it for posterity.

In June, the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and The Conservation Fund announced that they’d reached an agreement with former U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor and his family to acquire 8,000 acres of land in Transylvania County. Appraised at $60 million, the property sits at the headwaters of the East Fork of the French Broad River. Taylor has agreed to sell it for $33 million.

"Raising $33 million is contingent on public agency involvement,” notes Kieran Roe, the conservancy’s executive director. “We have a better chance of receiving grants if the land is owned by the state and publicly available."

Conservation groups have identified the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission as the appropriate agency to manage the land. On Nov. 4, the commission considered the Conservation Fund’s request that the agency seek annual $3.6 million grants for five years from the state’s Clean Water Management and Natural Heritage trust funds. The commission is currently working with the Conservation Fund to see if this commitment can be made. If the effort is successful, Wildlife Resources will administer the property as public game lands and open it to multiple uses.

Dick Ludington of the Conservation Fund's Chapel Hill office is optimistic that the commission will ultimately come on board. "If the state commits to half the value, it's much easier to get federal grants,” he explains. “But I'm concerned about the mood of Congress now."

This magnificent parcel offers diverse recreational opportunities. More than 100 miles of trails, dirt and ATV roads crisscross the land, making it accessible to hunters, hikers and mountain bikers.

The Headwaters Hunting and Fishing Club currently leases the property from the Taylor family and manages it for hunting. Bear, deer, grouse and turkey roam through forest and bog. The group’s 100 members own a cabin on the land, keep the roads passable and generally oversee the property.

Anglers will appreciate the tract’s 50 miles of trout streams. The high-quality waters are home to brook trout, WNC’s only native trout, as well as rainbow and brown trout lower down.

"It's critical to preserve the property,” says Asheville resident (and active Trout Unlimited member) George Grunewald. From October through early June, he notes, “The quality of fishing is very good. Development would ruin the streams and the trout." Grunewald also sees potential for recreational kayaking on several headwaters streams.

The property lies within the Blue Ridge Escarpment, where the mountains give way to the rolling Piedmont. Waterfalls abound — 25 of them, all told. Laurel Falls cascades over flat, moss-covered rocks. Farther south, East Fork Falls has carved large slices through the rock. Hidden Falls isn’t visible till you're almost upon it. Off to the right, a second waterfall is even more shrouded by rhododendrons.

A portion of the 77-mile Foothills Trail, which winds along the North Carolina/South Carolina border, crosses the headwaters tract. For more than a quarter-century, the volunteer Foothills Trail Conference has maintained the footpath, including the 9.3 miles on this private tract. The group recently sent a letter informing the Wildlife Resources Commission that if it managed the property, "We would seek to enter into a memorandum of agreement to continue to maintain the trail."

Jump Off Rock offers a magnificent view of the Blue Ridge Mountains (including Mount Pisgah and Looking Glass Rock), particularly in the fall. The small-leaved Carolina rhododendron lines the trail, and witch hazel juts up between the larger trees.

The headwaters property is also home to several rare species, including the endangered rock gnome lichen. Green salamanders, whose populations are declining in the Blue Ridge, live in horizontal cracks in the rocks. Biologists are now on the lookout for the endangered bog turtle.

The south side of the headwaters tract borders the Greenville watershed. Much of the surrounding property is also protected land, including the Jocassee Gorges Management Area and Jones Gap State Park; Table Rock State Park is close by. This creates the kind of large, unbroken area that’s crucial to wildlife migration and survival. The acquisition would also protect North Carolina’s portion of Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest peak.

Charles Taylor bought the land from Champion Paper about 25 years ago. Candler real estate broker Steve Towe, who’s known Taylor for 23 years, says the former congressman bought his first piece of land at age 17. Towe introduced the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy to Taylor.

The broker has also shown the property to a number of other key players, including Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and his wife and The Conservation Fund. "This is it,” says the nonprofit’s Dick Ludington; his group did a survey of land in Western North Carolina. “This is the last private tract on the crest of the Blue Ridge."

Big conservation groups typically serve as intermediaries in such transactions, buying and holding the parcel until it can be sold to a slower-moving government entity. That’s how the Foothills Conservancy enabled the U.S. Forest Service to acquire Catawba Falls last year.

Roe described the Nov. 4 meeting as "generally positive. We got a partial endorsement from WRC, but we're waiting for the full endorsement. WRC has pledged to work with conservation groups; we're confident that by mid-December, the Conservation Fund will have the commitment it needs to close the deal."

— Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein blogs at hikertohiker.com/thishikinglife.

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