Earth Day is worth celebrating under any circumstance. But this year, the important date on the environmental calendar was extra momentous for two local conservation organizations, which both announced major donations to protect more than 7,800 acres in Western North Carolina.
On April 22, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy shared news of a 7,500-acre land donation in the Roan Highlands, the largest single gift in the land trust’s history. Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina announced a 332-acre donation along Wilson Creek, a key parcel in Caldwell County for recreational use and natural resource value.
“We’re elated,” says Andrew Kota, executive director of Foothills Conservancy. He first identified the Wilson Creek parcel, which is bordered on three sides by Pisgah National Forest, as a “high-priority” property back in 2006. For 15 years, he’s waited for the land to become available for permanent protection. That moment finally arrived this year with a donation by conservation philanthropist Tim Sweeney.
“In the back of my mind, I knew that one day, it would happen,” Kota says. “That’s one thing about land trust staff: We’re tenacious and we persevere.”
For years, Wilson Creek has been a popular destination for fishing, swimming and whitewater boating. The donated river tract is home to several rare species, including the brook floater, an endangered species of freshwater river mussel; the Edmund’s snaketail dragonfly; and the seagreen darter freshwater fish.
For fishing enthusiasts like Squeak Smith of Morganton, Wilson Creek is a special area. “The scenery is beautiful, the rock formations, the river — it was unbelievable,” Smith said in a press release. “I’ve lived all over the world, I’ve fished all over the world, and I moved here specifically for the fishing. It’s a very unique place and it’s right in my backyard.”
Foothills Conservancy plans to transfer the property to the U.S. Forest Service by 2022. Besides filling in a critical piece of the conservation puzzle, the procurement will give emergency management crews better access to the surrounding national forest and river to quickly conduct rescue efforts.
‘Conservation home run’
The Roan Highlands donation lies at the southern end of the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area, a conservation zone designated by the N.C. General Assembly to protect the area’s natural features. It will officially come under SAHC’s ownership in about a year, after the land is surveyed and a management plan has been created.
“This is a conservation home run,” says Jay Leutze, SAHC’s senior board adviser. “It has everything that conservationists want to protect when we follow the science, and it’s spectacular scenery. It’s a reminder of what the landscape looked like for a very long time and sort of a wistful reminder of what’s been lost to development that breaks up wildlife habitat.”
Prior to the Earth Day announcement, SAHC had preserved more than 78,000 acres in North Carolina and Tennessee. Sweeney, the founder and CEO of Epic Games and a longtime environmental steward, also deserves thanks for the new high-elevation property, which includes over 100 miles of waterways, the largest American chestnut restoration project in the country and six federally endangered species, says SAHC Executive Director Carl Silverstein.
The pending transaction comes during a regional real estate boom. Typically, SAHC procures land through purchases or conservation easements, which can take lots of time and money, Silverstein says. Sweeney’s gift enables the land trust to accomplish “something incredible in one fell swoop” that would have taken upward of 20 years to piece together on its own.
“This is a chart-topping property because of the ecology, because it provides a corridor for wildlife and because the land is intact and hasn’t been fragmented by road building or timber cutting,” Silverstein says. “To be part of conserving this crown jewel of the mountains for the future feels really uplifting at a crucial time.”