Celebrating conservation

For our anniversary last year (our 34th), my husband treated me to a surprise flight in a small-engine plane. It was a Cessna—“a go-cart with wings,” we joked—and given my interest in local land conservation, he thought it would be an appropriate gift.

“You need to see the land from another perspective,” he wrote on the gift card. It’s true: Seeing the landscape from ground level is not the same as the bird’s-eye view one gets from a low-flying plane.

I’ve enjoyed flying out of our regional airport on commercial flights, but this was my first time flying out of Asheville in a private plane. If you’re like me, you get a real sense of pleasure observing that sea of green down below as your plane banks left off the runway. You can see Pisgah National Forest and then the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And that whole uninterrupted expanse of emerald-green trees gives me hope that our precious mountains won’t be completely built over in the future.

Yep, I’m a tree-hugger, and proud of it! Standing trees and forests are sorely undervalued. Besides being aesthetically pleasing, they give us cooling shade, hold our soils in place, store water, buffer noise, take up carbon dioxide and give off oxygen—all while providing habitat for animals and places for people to play. I’ve heard forests referred to as “the lungs of the planet.” What could be more important than that?

“Where do you want to go?” the pilot asked as we lifted off that day. I decided we should head east, toward Lake Lure; I was particularly worried about Chimney Rock Park. Privately owned for generations, the 996-acre property had just been put on the market for $55 million. I explained to the pilot that the state had been negotiating with the owners but had failed to close the deal after offering merely the appraised value—less than half the new asking price.

Who could buy a $55 million parcel? An oil baron from Dubai could, for use as a private playground. The CEO of any big American company could probably afford it. But here’s where I get into trouble: I feel that places like the beautiful granite cliffs around Lake Lure and Chimney Rock belong to me (well, all of us, actually). Naive, I know.

My husband and I had written letters to the state, begging them to find more money to buy this special place for the people of North Carolina. My car even sported a “savechimneyrock.net” bumper sticker, but I was afraid this precious property was about to be lost to development.

The Cessna quickly passed by the towering chimney with its fluttering American flag on top. Soon we were passing over parts of Rutherford and Polk counties. At that elevation, we could see where large swaths of land had been cleared for new roads and new houses. These areas were obviously experiencing the same kind of housing boom we’re seeing in Henderson County.

We flew over our own house in Saluda and on through the Green River Valley toward DuPont State Forest. I asked the pilot if he remembered the struggle to acquire that property a few years ago—how the state took ownership just in time, and the owner’s “improvements” were stopped. The people of North Carolina own all of DuPont State Forest now, not just a doughnut of land surrounding someone’s private playground in the middle.

All in all, it was a wonderful flight. And a few months later, North Carolina purchased Chimney Rock. Several conservation groups were involved in the negotiations, including the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. Now, the property is set to become the cornerstone of North Carolina’s newest state park.

Preserving our green spaces helps secure our environmental future while conveying immeasurable quality-of-life benefits right now. That’s why I believe so strongly in the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, which has done some amazing land-protection work since its incorporation in 1994. When I fear for the future of our special mountain home, it gives me a place to put my energy.

Chimney Rock Park is also the site of the conservancy’s annual Conservation Celebration. The rock belongs to all of us now, and it’s the perfect place for a big party! So come join us on Saturday, Sept. 22, to “Rally Round the Rock.”

If you haven’t been there in a while, now’s the time. You can visit the top of the chimney via the incredible elevator cut through solid granite. Come in the afternoon to enjoy a guided hike along one of the park trails. Then enjoy a glass of wine or a beer in the meadow while gazing up at the chimney and surrounding granite cliffs. A sit-down dinner of barbecued ribs will follow. And through it all, you can commune with other friends of the conservancy—people like you who want to see the land they love protected for future generations.

[Environmental consultant Katie Breckheimer is a founding member of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, based in Henderson County.]

Rally Round the Rock

For more information or to buy tickets, visit carolinamountain.org or call 697-5777. Tickets ($75) include all-day admission to Chimney Rock Park on Saturday, Sept. 22, plus a chance to buy an annual pass at a discount. The party starts at 5 p.m., but free guided hikes and shuttles to the top of the park will be offered earlier in the day.

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