My family and I often drive north to visit relatives for the holidays, and at the end of a long journey as we coast down Interstate 26 into Asheville, there is a certain feeling that comes over me. It’s a mixture of joy, relief and longing as the sweetness of the mountains of home rises around us. I am far from the first to express such a sentiment; I hear it time and time again from the mouths of friends and strangers, travelers and locals, longtime residents and WNC newbies. We love the land, and it seems to love us right back. Lucky for us, the land stewards at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy look after this land that we love.
The folks at SAHC work so we can play. Through community outings and partnerships with local businesses, the organization aims to inspire residents to connect with the land and learn more about what there is to preserve and why. “Getting people out to enjoy the places we have protected is integral to our mission and helps build partnerships to sustain our work in the future,” says SAHC communications director Angela Shepherd. The organization attracts a range of nature lovers to its peaks and waterways with outings like Yoga on the Mountain and Kids in the Creek. Partnerships with local businesses have resulted in hikes such as For Love of Beer and Mountains, which was created in conjunction with Highland Brewing Co. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For Shepherd and her co-workers, preserving the mountains is more than just a job. “I gained an appreciation for conservation running barefoot on my grandparents’ farm and hiking Mount Mitchell with my family,” says Shepherd. “Like many, I moved to the Asheville area because there is something here that stirs my soul. … Seeing the tide of development sweeping across the mountains, I wanted to help find some way for people to live here without loving the mountains to death.”
This year, the SAHC celebrates 40 years of conservation. When the nonprofit first launched, its focus was on preserving scenic views and wilderness experiences for those traveling the Appalachian Trail through the Highlands of Roan, near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. With that initial seed of stewardship remaining at the heart of its conservation work, SAHC has grown to encompass much more. “We’ve broadened our efforts over the past decades to protect special places all across the Southern Appalachians,” says Sheperd.
Those special places include family farms, municipal watersheds, peaks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, inholdings in national forests and Mount Mitchell State Park as well as tracts adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In all, SAHC has protected more than 63,000 acres. Most recently, the SAHC purchased 357 acres in the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area. Sheperd says that the tract provides potential for public access to a hidden 100-foot waterfall on Justice Creek, which SAHC protected in 2012 transferring the land to the state of North Carolina last year.
While the folks at the conservancy seek to preserve the natural features and native species of the past and present, their focus is very much on the future. “As we continue to evolve [over] the next 40 years, we’re looking forward to exciting new endeavors,” says Shepherd. Perhaps one of the most intriguing developments is a community farm in Alexander, which will be open to the public in June. The farm is intended to be “a model for productive agriculture and environmental health,” she says. “We recently completed a stream restoration project and built a 1.5-mile loop trail on the farm, and we’re making plans for a beginning farmer incubator.”
The mountains have a way of breaking down triviality and reconnecting us to what’s real, and that is worth protecting. “The incredible natural treasures that draw people to this region are often the same fragile resources that are most in need of preservation,” says Shepherd. “SAHC strives for balance, working to protect unique places in the Southern Appalachians, providing stewardship of these places for future generations and connecting people with nature through the places we have protected.”
For Shepherd, making sure the land we love will remain for future generations is the driving force behind the work done at SAHC. “My kids are what most inspires me to work in conservation,” she says. “They took their first steps on the Appalachian Trail when we went for a camping and habitat restoration volunteer weekend one year, and seeing their wonder and excitement at the world outdoors — that’s what inspires me.”
To learn more about the SAHC, visit them on the Web at appalachian.org or call 253-0095.
• Feb. 15 — Love of Nature and Farmland Hike in Fairview
• March 22 — Hike to Snowball Mountain off the Blue Ridge Parkway
• April 12 — Wildflower Identification Hike
• May 15 — Appalachian Spring event at Highland Brewing Co., celebrating SAHC’s 40th anniversary
• June 7 — Land Trust Day and open house at the community farm in Alexander
• June 14 — June Jamboree in the Highlands of Roan: Five guided hikes, including Yoga on the Mountain, Roll and Stroll in the Rhododendron Gardens and Kids in the Creek
— Freelance writer Haley Steinhardt has called Asheville home since 2003. When she’s not writing, she runs local wellness practice Blue Mountain Reiki and spends time with her sweet family.