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
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.”
- Among federal facilities, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is totally closed to the public, as is the southernmost portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Trails and parking areas remain open in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, but all campgrounds, restrooms and concessions are closed until further notice.
- The N.C. Forest Service has closed DuPont State Recreational Forest and the neighboring Holmes Educational State Forest. Locally among the N.C. State Park system, Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park, Gorges State Park, Mount Mitchell State Park and South Mountains State Park are closed.
- The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has closed all shelters along the Appalachian Trail and is asking all hikers to postpone hikes of any distance. All trailheads and access points leading to the trail in the Pisgah, Nantahala and Cherokee national forests have been closed.
- Conserving Carolina has closed Bearwallow Mountain Trail, Trombatore Trail, the Florence Nature Preserve trail system and Wildcat Rock Trail in the Hickory Nut Gorge.
- All Asheville city parks, Buncombe County parks, Beaver Lake in North Asheville and the Botanical Gardens at Asheville are closed.
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 avl.mx/716.
- 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 avl.mx/719.
- 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 avl.mx/717. Comments on the application may be submitted through Monday, April 20, by email to PublicComments@ncdenr.gov.