Green in brief: Buncombe merges conservation departments, WNC trail closures

Bearwallow Mountain Trail
NOTHING TO SEE HERE: Bearwallow Mountain Trail is among the routes in the Hickory Nut Gorge closed by Conserving Carolina to avoid "highly unsafe levels of crowding" and reduce transmission of COVID-19. Photo by Clint Calhoun, courtesy of Conserving Carolina

Buncombe County creates Agriculture and Land Resources Department

By land or by water, Buncombe government leaders are taking a new approach to protecting the county’s natural resources. On March 17, the county announced that it would combine its Soil and Water Conservation District with the Buncombe County Center of the N.C. Cooperative Extension to form the Agriculture and Land Resources Department.

Sybil Tate, assistant county manager, said the change would improve administrative processes and open up opportunities for collaboration. She noted that staff and funding levels would remain the same under the new department and that the public would see no impact on services such as farmland preservation and environmental education.

Heading the department is Jennifer Harrison, who began her role as its director on March 23. According to a county press release, she previously managed the sustainability department at Wisconsin-based food company Organic Valley and holds a doctorate in environmental science from Ohio State University.

Due to the disruption caused by COVID-19, said county spokesperson Kassi Day, Harrison has not yet been able to meet her new staff in person and was unable to comment on her goals for the future of the department. Gary Higgins, chair of the Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors, said he and his colleagues hoped to update their annual and long-range plans in collaboration with Harrison within the next few months.

SAHC receives $150K state grant for Chestnut Mountain conservation

Josh Stein at Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy
ALL SMILES: N.C Attorney General Josh Stein, second from right, announced a $150,000 grant to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy for the purchase and protection of Chestnut Mountain in Haywood County. Photo courtesy of SAHC

On March 11, state Attorney General Josh Stein announced that the Asheville-based Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy would receive $150,000 from the N.C. Department of Justice Environmental Enhancement Grant program. The money will support the purchase and permanent protection of 448 acres on Chestnut Mountain in Haywood County.

In a press release about the grant, SAHC spokesperson Angela Shepherd said the property near Canton, which at one point had been considered for an auto racing track, contained over 9 miles of streams and served as an important wildlife corridor for bears and deer. She noted that some of the land could be reserved for hiking, nonmotorized biking and children’s play areas.

The DOJ grant comes on top of a $1.2 million grant from the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund in 2019. Shepherd said SAHC is still conducting due diligence on the property and raising additional funds to complete the purchase.

Trails and parks close throughout Western North Carolina

Although outdoor recreation is still permitted under the various stay-home or shelter-in-place orders enacted by WNC jurisdictions, the managers of numerous parks and trails have nevertheless opted to restrict access in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many have said that patrons were failing to observe social distancing guidelines; in a representative press release, Hendersonville-based nonprofit Conserving Carolina noted that “with so many other activities closed to the public, we were seeing highly unsafe levels of crowding.”

Save the (virtual) date

  • The Sierra Club of Western North Carolina will offer a webinar about the revision of the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests management plan at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 2. The event will give background about the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed plans and advice about how to most effectively submit public comment. More information and registration at
  • MountainTrue is also planning an info session about the forest management plan changes at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 7. The online event replaces a series of in-person comment parties previously scheduled through the end of the month. Details and registration at
  • Following the cancellation of a March 19 public meeting due to COVID-19, a video presentation about water quality certification for a Biltmore Farms property on the French Broad River in southwestern Buncombe County has been made available online at Comments on the application may be submitted through Monday, April 20, by email to

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is a contributing editor of Mountain Xpress, reviewing coverage of Western North Carolina's governments and environment. He was formerly the paper's news editor; his work has also appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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