Box Creek Wilderness gets new lease on life after development plan fizzles

As progress marches on, large areas of untrammeled nature are increasingly hard to come by in North Carolina — especially where the mountains meet the Piedmont, the state’s most urbanized and densely populated region. But every so often, wilderness gets a lucky break.

So it is with the Box Creek Wilderness, a 3,300-acre tract linking the Blue Ridge and the South Mountains just east of Asheville. On May 16, an advisory committee to the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program recommended that the state enter into a protective agreement with the landowner.

Straddling the border between McDowell and Rutherford counties, with its peak at Rockey Face Mountain, Box Creek Wilderness is one of the last remaining “green islands” that still harbors the largely undisturbed natural habitats that characterized this area before extensive human development took hold.

The weak economy may have helped bring about this reprieve. The area was recently spared when a mountain development concept failed to come to fruition — and a conservation-minded buyer acquired the property under foreclosure.

The Box Creek Wilderness is the third-largest privately held forest tract in Rutherford and McDowell counties and is now owned by Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Cary-based Epic Games. The place is home to a surprising abundance of rare and imperiled species — including many globally rare plants, and a crayfish found nowhere else on Earth — along with several Native American archaeological sites not yet fully explored.

And there’s a larger, landscape-scale value to the property as well, local conservationists say, when you consider the movements of living things across the land.

“This tract is a critical stepping stone in a wildlife corridor connecting the extensive state park and game lands in the South Mountains to the protected lands along the Blue Ridge,” explains Susie Hamrick-Jones, Executive Director of the Foothills Land Conservancy, a nonprofit that works with landowners to provide long-term stewardship for a variety of natural values.

Sweeney is pursuing the protective designation with enthusiasm. The May 16 proposal means the site should soon be recognized through the NHP’s “Significant Natural Areas” registry, which administers voluntary agreements with landowners who wish to preserve the high conservation value of their land.

“Government and nonprofit funds cannot permanently protect all of North Carolina’s important natural areas,” says Hamrick-Jones. “Agreements like these with private, conservation-minded landowners are crucial to achieving meaningful protection of our state’s most important natural areas.”

Sweeney is being assisted by Durham-based Unique Places, LLC, which provides expertise to landowners in matters of conservation planning, land stewardship and the protection of natural and cultural resources. Unique Places has helped to protect other parcels in the region, including several tracts that became part of the nearby Chimney Rock State Park.

Meanwhile, new threats loom for this wild area – including invasive species, exotic pests, and ATV users — even as the state prepares to sign it into its significant areas registry.

Unique Places’ stewardship strategy for the property includes prescribed burns to restore fire-adapted plant communities; treatment for hemlocks under attack by the woolly adelgid; and restoration of the American chestnut using blight-resistant “legacy trees” developed by the American Chestnut Foundation. These and other stewardship activities will be officialized in the Natural Heritage Program registry for the Box Creek Wilderness in the coming weeks, according to staff at Unique Places.

To learn more about the Box Creek Wilderness, check out the videos produced by Unique Places.


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