Working with trusted conservation partners, this summer the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) purchased two parcels, totaling 219 acres, which will eventually be added to the Nantahala National Forest for the public to enjoy. One of the tracts contains Big Creek, a headwater tributary of the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River. The other is located on Tanasee Ridge and can potentially provide an alternate gateway to Panthertown Valley, a popular area for outdoor recreation. Both have long been priorities for addition to the Nantahala National Forest.
“Permanent conservation of the Big Creek and Tanasee Ridge properties will enhance the public experience of using the forest,” says Carl Silverstein, SAHC’s executive director.
The 110-acre Big Creek tract in Macon County just north of the North Carolina/Georgia border is a headwater source of the nationally significant Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River – a beloved river for people to enjoy outdoor recreation like whitewater rafting, kayaking and fishing. The property on Big Creek is surrounded by the Nantahala and Chattahoochee National Forests.
A long-time priority for protection, other organizations previously attempted to secure this property for conservation. SAHC plans to own it for several years, and then transfer it to the U.S. Forest Service to become part of the surrounding Nantahala National Forest. Partner land trust Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust (HCLT), which works in this geographic area, will help steward the property during SAHC’s ownership of the tract.
“HCLT is delighted to work with SAHC on the project to acquire and transfer the Big Creek tract to the U.S. Forest Service,” says Gary Wein, HCLT’s executive director. “Collaboration between these two storied land trusts brings their respective expertise and resources together in a win-win for everyone. This tract, which is both the gateway to Secret Falls and contains significant natural heritage has always been high on the priority list for the Nantahala Ranger District.”
In addition to protecting Big Creek, a primary tributary of the Chattooga River, conservation of the land protects important habitat for diverse plants and animals – particularly salamanders.
“The property is a beautiful example of forest in the Upper Chattooga River watershed with habitats ranging from granitic cliffs, oak-hickory forest full of chantrelles, and riparian areas home to trout and otters,” says Kyle Pursel, HCLT’s stewardship coordinator. “The property has a high diversity of salamanders, with at least 12 species of salamanders known from the property or lands immediately adjacent. It also has a great diversity of plants, including area endemics like Biltmores Sedge (Carex biltmoreana) and Granite Dome Goldenrod (Solidago simulans).”
The Tanasee Ridge property encompasses 109 acres along the ridge that forms the border between Jackson and Transylvania Counties. It is surrounded by Nantahala National Forest on three sides and significant because of its potential to provide an alternative public access to popular outdoor recreation areas in Panthertown Valley. It also contains important water resources in the Wolf Creek-Tuckaseegee River watershed and forested habitat in an important wildlife corridor (as identified by Wildlands Network Connectivity Index).
“The Tanasee Ridge tract is a beautifully wooded property that straddles the Transylvania and Jackson County boundaries,” says Rep. John Ager, life long friend of the Tuckasegee River. “More importantly, it provides new access to the upper Tuckasegee River and the Panthertown Valley from Highway 281. When practical, this land will be conveyed to the U.S. Forest Service and remain in the public domain for the enjoyment of the general public. SAHC should be commended for recognizing the long term value of this property, and marshaling the resources to purchase it.”
Conservation Funding for Public Lands
The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) – celebrated as the most important legislation for land and water conservation and public lands in the last 50+ years – was signed into law on August 4, 2020 after passing both the US Senate and House of Representatives with broad bipartisan support. The legislation finally provides permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and will help address an enormous backlog of deferred maintenance needs on public lands.
SAHC has a long history working with partners in public lands (including national forests and park units like the Appalachian National Historic Trail) to secure places for people to enjoy outdoor recreation.
“In the Eastern U.S., every acre of national forest land has been purchased from private landowners,” explains Silverstein. “When Congress authorized the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests as part of the Weeks Act in 1911, all the land here was already privately owned – so every acre of public land has to be purchased. In the early years there was a program for purchasing land, but these national forests, especially in the Southeast, have never been completed. Within the forest planning boundaries, property ownership appears something like a checkerboard – with both public lands and private lands. This is important because parts of the national forest may be near a trail or other feature, but people can’t utilize the public lands to the fullest because private lands are interspersed. Those things were true in both of SAHC’s recent Big Creek and Tanasee Ridge acquisitions.”
SAHC leveraged philanthropic donations and a loan from trusted partners at The Conservation Fund to acquire the Tanasee Ridge property, and a generous anonymous conservation philanthropist made a loan to enable the purchase of the Big Creek tract.
“SAHC courageously borrows money to seize unique conservation opportunities like these when they are available,” continues Silverstein. “If we were not able to do so, the land would probably end up being developed. We are only able to borrow money towards conservation acquisitions like these if we can map out how we will be able to repay the loan. For example, SAHC borrowed more than $1.2 million towards the acquisition of the Big Creek and Tanasee Ridge properties. Over the past years, there have been multiple attempts to secure these properties which didn’t work out. With the confidence that the Land and Water Conservation Fund will be available to transfer these properties to become part of national forests in the future, and thanks to our dedicated members and generous contributions from Brad and Shelli Stanback, SAHC was finally able to protect them.”