Looking back as we head into the final stretch of 2020, we all know that this year has been far from ordinary. On a positive note, it has been a record-breaking year for local conservation efforts! Since the beginning of January, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy has closed on the protection of more than 2,600 acres across the mountains of Western North Carolina and East Tennessee, with additional projects scheduled to wrap up by year-end. Several of these have been in the works for many years.
“It is a testament to the commitment of SAHC members, staff, and conservation-minded supporters that we have been able to complete these projects during extraordinary circumstances, and we are grateful to all the people who make this remarkable work possible,” says SAHC Executive Director Carl Silverstein. “There is something tangible and reassuring in preserving land – it’s something you can put your hand on. These conservation projects help preserve cultural connections to the past, places to connect with nature, and vital resources we rely on now, and which will be increasingly critical in the future.”
What makes these 2020 conservation projects so remarkable?
From high elevation bird habitat and stunning streams in the Highlands of Roan, from in-holdings in national forest land to productive farmland – these diverse projects represent a cross-section of the core goals of SAHC’s conservation mission: protecting native plant and animal habitat, clean water, farmland, places for people to enjoy recreation, and scenic beauty in NC and TN. In geographic location, these projects range from near the Appalachian Trail on the TN/NC border to the headwaters of the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River on the NC/GA border. The events of 2020 have underscored the importance of being adaptable, and SAHC’s conservation work is critical in securing natural resources that ensure the region’s resilience in response to climate change.
These 2020 conservation projects secure important wildlife corridors and habitat for migratory birds, helping to stabilize declining populations and providing spaces for species movement. Protection of high elevation mountain headwaters helps protect water quality downstream, and conservation of land along streams and in rare mountain wetland areas will help stabilize stream temperatures and preserve habitat for aquatic species. By conserving farmland with local, regional, and nationally important prime soils, the farmland conservation projects which closed this year help support local food production and ensure that these soils will never be lost to development.
The new Wiles Creek Preserve and Little Rock Creek Preserve are both exceptional examples of projects that protect water quality and habitat for myriad birds, amphibians, mammals, and more, including rare mountain wetland habitat. SAHC’s acquisitions this year at Tiger Creek, Big Creek, Tanasee Ridge, and Chestnut Mountain have all been proposed for future transfer to become part of Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests and a new conservation-recreation park near Canton; that means these lands will be available for people to enjoy for generations into the future.
From Sandy Hollar Farms in the Sandy Mush community of Buncombe County, to Bowditch Bottoms in the shadow of the Black Mountains in Yancey County, to Sinkhole Creek Farms in Mitchell County, SAHC’s farmland preservation projects which closed this year permanently protect agricultural land and prime soils, helping family farmers continue their generations-long operations now and protecting the land for farming use in the future. As the popularity of the region continues to grow, fertile flat and rolling farmland with important agricultural soils suffers pressure from development; once lost to development, these lands cannot be replaced. By protecting a network of farms with conservation easements, SAHC permanently secures agricultural resources. The multipart process of applying for grant funding from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service or NC Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund means that farmland preservation projects can take years to come to fruition. Some of the projects which closed this year have been in the works for five years. A few of these projects qualified for funding from a landmark allocation of $8 million in federal funds for WNC, which were designated for farmland projects which protect both important agricultural soils and headwater streams flowing into drinking water supplies for people across the Southeast. This allocation was secured by the Blue Ridge Forever coalition in 2017, and SAHC Farmland Director Jess Laggis is thrilled to have closed projects this year which bring some of that money ‘into the ground’ in WNC.
Award-winning Conservation Efforts
With this record year for the number of land protection projects completed, and the variety of project types (including conservation easements on private lands to protect forest habitat and water sources, acquisition of new preserves in the Highlands of Roan and near Mt. Pisgah, assists to public agencies, and farmland preservation) it is also fitting that SAHC as an organization and individual staff have been recognized with national, regional, and local awards.
This year SAHC was honored with The Garden Club of America’s Cynthia Pratt Laughlin Medal for Environmental Protection. This very prestigious national award is one of only ten medals awarded nationwide by The Garden Club of America, and a successful nomination involves a competitive process requiring letters of commendation from partners across the country. Miranda (Randy) Hunter served as chair of the nominating committee from the French Broad River Garden Club and remarked on how impressed she was with the glowing letters of support received on behalf of SAHC. Also this year, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy honored SAHC’s Roan Stewardship Director Marquette Crockett with the Southern Regional Office 2020 Partner of the Year Award, and SAHC’s Farmland Associate Tamarya Sims was recently recognized with a 2020 COTHINKK Community Leader Award.
All-in-all, it’s been an incredible year for conservation, in spite of everything, and we are so grateful for all the supporters, team members, volunteers, and partners who make it possible!