Sandy Mush Forest Restoration Coalition Update

Photo of a tangle of Oriental bittersweet vines.

Oriental bittersweet vines can be extremely prolific, killing trees and harming forest health.

The Sandy Mush Coalition — a partnership among SAHC, the Forest Stewards Guild, and EcoForesters – has completed its first year of collective effort to increase capacity to control invasive exotic plants and improve forest stewardship in Sandy Mush. The coalition is fostering healthy and resilient forests that protect environmental values, cultural heritage, economic opportunities, and quality of life for people in the Sandy Mush area of Buncombe, Madison, and Haywood counties.

“The purpose of the coalition is to increase the community’s capacity to conduct forest management activities and to address the concerns and needs of landowners in the community,” explains SAHC Stewardship Director Sarah Sheeran.  “We just finished the first year of our partnership, in which we’ve been meeting with community members, natural resource professionals, and stakeholders. With the coalition up and running, we have an action plan and are now in the process of implementing that plan as we head into our second year.”

The coalition held two introductory information-gathering sessions with community members last fall and a Sandy Mush Forest Restoration Gathering in January, in which a variety of organizations and forest professionals presented.  These facilitated listening sessions connected state and local partners and other nonprofits involved in forest health initiatives with community members.

A tree after the Oriental bittersweet vines have been cut and treated

A tree after the Oriental bittersweet vines have been cut and treated.

“The coalition is providing a means to connect landowners with the technical and financial resources they need in order to improve forest stewardship on their properties,” continues Sheeran. “The event in January was a powerful way of gathering the people together in one room so that SAHC and our coalition partners could answer questions from landowners on the tools and resources available to help them manage their land.”

Funding for the coalition also enabled SAHC to treat approximately 50 acres of our conservation properties and preserves.

“We’re trying to be good stewards of the land we own and fulfill our own commitment to management, while modelling these management practices for others,” says Sheeran.

Blue Ridge National Heritage Area logoThis project is made possible in part by a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership. Support from local philanthropic environmental leaders provided critical funding to make the coalition possible. We also want to thank the state and local partners and other nonprofits who presented at the community gatherings and have been involved in these efforts – including NC Forest Service, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Mountain Valleys RC&D, MountainTrue, Hemlock Restoration Initiative, and several others.

“We’ve all been working together to fulfill community goals for family forests in Sandy Mush — To help gain an understanding of what people value about the land, fears they have, and the needs they’ve identified, so collaboratively we can come up with a plan to address these needs and concerns,” says Sheeran.  “What I really appreciate about the community is how much they value their sense of place. This is a very tight knit community that has a tremendous love for their land, their neighbors, and their place. You get a real appreciation for how special Sandy Mush is – the sense of ownership and pride in community.”

Hogeye Bottomlands – 88 Acres

Farmland Preservation at Hogeye Bottomlands in Sandy Mush Community

In the Sandy Mush farming community, scenic views of fertile bottomland, rolling pastures, and distant mountain ridges create a stunning backdrop for those who work the land. Now, SAHC has conserved another tract of farmland here, adding to a network of protected agricultural lands and wildlife corridors throughout Sandy Mush.

Farmers Aubrey and Rieta Wells graze cattle and produce hay on the 88-acre Hogeye Bottomlands — now permanently protected through a conservation easement.

Sections of Sandy Mush Creek and Hogeye Branch run through the tract, which contains prime soils (a designation for soils of national importance) as well as soils of statewide and local importance. Almost half (45%) of soils on the tract are considered prime, locally or statewide important soils. Found along waterways and formed over long periods of time, these soils are important agricultural resources — and relatively rare in mountainous areas. Unfortunately, the low-lying, fairly flat bottomlands where we find these soils are also sought after for easy development. Both Aubrey and Rieta grew up in families with long farming traditions and wanted to see this farmland protected for future generations.

“We’d like to see the Sandy Mush area stay as undeveloped as possible,” shares Aubrey. “It’s one of the few places in the county you can still go to see the beauty of natural spaces and farmland.” Read more

Hidden Valley – 50 Acres in Haywood County

Mountaintop pasturesIn fall 2019, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy purchased 50 acres at Hidden Valley in Haywood County in order to protect corridors for wildlife movement, water quality, scenic views, and farmland.

The tract adjoins the 146-acre Little Creek Headwaters preserve that we purchased in 2016, providing connectivity for wildlife corridors. Conserving the land also protects scenic views from the Crabtree area and the agricultural community in Bald Creek valley.

“A scenic gem, the Bald Creek area of Crabtree is a quiet farming community tucked between the iconic Crabtree Bald and the Haywood/Buncombe County line,” says Land Protection Director Michelle Pugliese. “The Hidden Valley property expands SAHC’s protection of a concentration of over 1,400 permanently protected acres within Crabtree and nearby Sandy Mush (Buncombe & Madison Counties). This chain of protected land follows ridgelines that are important for wildlife movement and dip into fertile valleys that provide water resources and soil for productive agricultural land.” Read more

139 Acres in Beaverdam Creek Watershed

Barn on protected propertySAHC recently purchased 139 acres in the Beaverdam area of Haywood County, connecting the Town of Canton’s Rough Creek watershed property with conserved land previously protected by SAHC. The acquisition will permanently protect wildlife habitat, scenic views from public trails, and water quality in streams.

“This 139-acre tract includes portions of Beaverdam Creek and its tributaries,” explains Conservation Director Hanni Muerdter. “The property fills a protection gap within the watershed, directly connecting Canton’s Rough Creek watershed conservation easement to the west and an SAHC-owned preserve to the north. Together these properties form a 1,120-acre nearly contiguous protected assemblage within the Beaverdam watershed.”

Map of Doubleside Knob area conservationBeaverdam Creek’s water quality is considered to be on the decline, and SAHC’s purchase of the tract improves surface water quality by permanently protecting 2.5 miles of stream on the tract from development. We also plan to manage the property according to best management practices for water quality, which will help reduce sedimentation, bacteria levels, and runoff. This purchase directly supports the Beaverdam Watershed Action Plan, produced by Haywood Waterways and the Pigeon River Fund.

“SAHC’s acquisition of this property complements our work to prevent water quality degradation in Beaverdam Creek, which is considered to be on the decline,” says Eric Romaniszyn, Executive Director of Haywood Waterways Association. “Haywood Waterways works to maintain and improve water quality throughout Haywood County through voluntary initiatives. Our Pigeon River Watershed Action Plan specifically recommends conservation of critical headwater areas, such as the tract recently acquired by SAHC, for the long-term protection of water quality. We certainly appreciate SAHC’s and the partnership’s work to protect these lands and maintain the high quality of our watersheds.”

Former landowner David Ashe contacted SAHC about this property in the Beaverdam Creek watershed after reading about our purchase of the adjoining Doubleside Knob preserve last year. Both tracts were once part of a much larger parcel owned by his wife’s family. David wanted to permanently protect the land in order to honor her.

“She never wanted to see it developed,” he says. “She wouldn’t talk to anyone about selling it. She passed away about a year and a half ago, and I thought that it would be good to preserve it, so it will stay like it is. I think that’s what she would have wanted.”

This acquisition was made possible with a generous seed gift from private donors for the acquisition, support from SAHC’s members, and a $25,000 grant from the Pigeon River Fund of The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.

“This land has been passed down in the same family for over 150 years, and we are so grateful that the previous landowner wanted to see it permanently protected and reached out to SAHC,” adds Muerdter. “We look forward to managing this land for future generations.”

Photo credits: Johnny Davison

Farm Management: Pasture Walk

On a Thursday evening in September, I joined  20 neighbors, local farmers, landowners, for a pasture walk led by Buncombe Co. Cooperative Extension on SAHC’s 100+ acre community farm in Alexander, NC. Meghan Baker, Ethan Henderson, and Noah Henson took us all on an informative stroll to discuss management strategies and how to keep pastures healthy and productive. 

I joined the group as a new Intern with SAHC. It was an exciting foray into the world of local agriculture. As a student of Ecology, I spend a lot of time learning about and managing exotic invasive plants in forests, so it was fascinating to gain a new perspective. I learned that pasture land is an ecosystem in itself, and with the right management strategies, they can be productive, beneficial, and botanically diverse.  Read more

Ridgeview Farm – 118 Acres Protected

View of Ridgeview FarmBrandon Hensley has no illusions about farm life in WNC — it’s hard work, with sparse financial rewards. However, a deep connection to his family’s land kept him working with SAHC over the lengthy 5-year process to permanently protect a beautiful, productive farm in an area pinched by increasing residential development.

In March 2019, we closed on the conservation easement protecting the 118-acre Ridgeview Farm in Buncombe County. Located just 2 miles from our Community Farm, this historic homestead farm contains a high percentage of agriculturally important soils. Brandon, a young farmer in his mid-30s, is carrying on his family’s legacy as the 5th generation to work this land. Read more

Sandy Mush Forest Restoration Coalition

SAHC partners on forest stewardship expansion in Sandy Mush.

We have long been stewards of Sandy Mush, protecting over 12,000 acres of this high priority conservation area. We are excited to collaborate with EcoForesters and the Forest Stewards Guild to help grow a Sandy-Mush-wide forest restoration project! While this project is still in its infancy, with collaborators working to secure funding, the primary goal is to foster healthy and resilient forests that protect environmental values, cultural heritage, economic opportunities, and quality of life for the Sandy Mush Community.

Through this project we hope to:

  • Form a “Sandy Mush Forest Restoration Coalition” by bringing together diverse stakeholders in the community and create a collaborative space for shared decision-making.
  • Restore native species habitat, as much of the forest land in Sandy Mush has been degraded by historical land use practices and non-native invasive plants.
  • Host an annual Forest Stewardship Gathering in Sandy Mush to connect landowners with resources to care for their forests.

Blue Ridge National Heritage Area logoThis project is made possible by a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership. 

Look for more updates in the future!

Rogers Cove – 385 Acres

Hugged by mountains and tucked away in the scenic Crabtree community of Haywood County, Rogers Cove contains beautiful rolling pastures and forested hills that stir the imagination. We have permanently protected 385 acres of productive, scenic farmland in this cove through agricultural conservation easements.

“The Rogers family has farmed this land for at least four generations and wanted to see it stay farmland forever, which is why they protected their land with SAHC through agricultural easements,” says Jess Laggis, SAHC’s Farmland Protection Director. “Beyond all the beauty and ecosystem services this land protection provides, it also supports some of the kindest farmers you could meet in maintaining our mountain farming heritage.” Read more

Marshall Watershed – 541 Acres Protected

In northwest Madison County, 541 secluded acres of forest filter miles of clean mountain streams that once provided drinking water to town residents. We worked with the Town of Marshall to permanently protect the Marshall Watershed property with a conservation easement — our sixth project to conserve municipal watershed lands. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund awarded SAHC a grant to protect this tract and its outstanding water resources.

“The Town of Marshall has been committed for years to preserving the Marshall Watershed from development,” said town attorney Jamie Stokes, on behalf of the Town of Marshall. “We are proud to have finalized this project, with the assistance and dedication of SAHC, so that this beautiful landscape and the natural resources thereon will be preserved for many generations to come.” Read more

Boyd Cove Conservation Easement

We protected 88 acres in Boyd Cove, adding to thousands of protected acres in the Newfound Mountains of Sandy Mush. Landowners Pattie and Ed Ellis, Kate Tierney, and Kara Powis worked with us to protect the forested cove with a conservation easement, ensuring that plant and animal habitat and water sources on the property will remain undisturbed for future generations.

“Pattie and Ed Ellis have documented over 100 species of plants and animals during their 30+ years on this property,” says Land Protection Director Michelle Pugliese. “They also located 15 springs across the cove. This conservation easement will help protect habitat and clean water in the French Broad River watershed.” Read more