Protecting Hickory Nut Gorge: CMLC helps keep WNC beautiful

Mountain high: Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy volunteers, contributors and staff (pictured above) had their biggest year in 2013: About 4,000 acres were protected across the region, including Bearwallow Mountain, pictured here.
Mountain high: Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy volunteers, contributors and staff (pictured above) had their biggest year in 2013: About 4,000 acres were protected across the region, including Bearwallow Mountain, pictured here.

Day after day, the dedicated staff at Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy quietly works to protect special open spaces for the public to enjoy. Over the years, CMLC has compiled a remarkable track record of preserving many of the natural jewels in Hickory Nut Gorge — including cliffs, waterfalls and scenic mountain vistas — for future generations to enjoy.

In 2005 CMLC was instrumental in helping bring about the creation of the new Chimney Rock State Park. In one of its largest and boldest projects so far, the nonprofit partnered with The Nature Conservancy to secure the 1,568-acre World’s Edge property, which became one of the park’s anchor properties. CMLC board members and donors took significant risks, some even putting up their own money to make this transaction possible.

This was followed in 2009 with another major acquisition: 1,525 acres at Weed Patch Mountain north of Lake Lure, adjacent to Chimney Rock State Park’s Rumbling Bald tract. In 2010, CMLC transferred 200 acres of the parcel to the town of Lake Lure to create Buffalo Creek Park, which now includes miles of mountain biking trails, with plans for extending additional trails into the conservancy’s Weed Patch tract.

In contrast with conservation groups whose primary mission is protecting plant and animal habitat, CMLC eagerly seeks to create recreational opportunities for hikers, bird watchers, rock climbers and other outdoors enthusiasts. In 2010, it initiated an even more ambitious project: a publicly accessible trail system extending the length of Hickory Nut Gorge, from the continental divide down to Lake Lure. The proposed trail corridors cross both public and private lands, and CMLC continues to dialogue with various landowners about conservation easements and trail access agreements.

A big success was obtaining a conservation easement and public trail right of way on Bearwallow Mountain, one of Henderson County’s most iconic peaks. To date, CMLC has protected 165 acres; ultimately, the land trust hopes to protect an additional 300 acres atop the mountain’s scenic ridgeline, including the summit of Little Bearwallow Mountain.

The easement allowed them to put in a 1-mile hiking trail to Bearwallow’s grassy summit. Completed in 2011 with help from the Carolina Mountain Club and community volunteers, it affords spectacular 360 degree views extending as far as Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi. The following year, CMLC launched the Bearwallow Beast 5K trail run. The grueling route climbs relentlessly from the village of Gerton to the summit. In the past two years, nearly 500 runners have competed in this event, which is capped off with live bluegrass music, local beer and food on the mountaintop. This year’s race is slated for Sunday, May 4. Register online at bearwallowbeast.com.

Back in 2001, Dr. Tom Florence and his wife, Glenna, donated 600 acres of land on the southern slopes of Little Pisgah Mountain. The Florence Nature Preserve has since become a popular destination for hikers, but parking was always very limited. In 2012, in partnership with Henderson County, CMLC purchased 31 acres on Highway 74A to create a new parking area and trailhead. Work continues on the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail, a 15-mile loop that will one day link conserved lands on Bearwallow and Little Bearwallow mountains with the Florence Nature Preserve.

With public funds for land acquisitions in short supply, the conservancy — realizing that support from private individuals and businesses would be needed to fulfill its ambitious vision — launched a capital campaign last year to raise money for completing this trail system.

CMLC had its biggest year ever in 2013, protecting 4,000 acres at 21 sites across the region. Since 1994, the group has protected more than 27,000 acres in the French Broad River watershed, Hickory Nut Gorge and the Blue Ridge escarpment.

The Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy is a wonderful example of the kind of tireless, behind-the-scenes work being done by local nonprofits to make Western North Carolina a better place for all of us to live, both now and in the future.

To learn more about CMLC’s projects in Hickory Nut Gorge, or to assist with their capital campaign, visit carolinamountain.org or call its office in Hendersonville at 697-5777.

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