Yellow Mountain Connector

Aerial photo of Yellow Mountain Connector by Dennis Oakley and Southwings

Aerial photo of Yellow Mountain Connector, photo credit Dennis Oakley and Southwings

In 2019,  Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) completed the purchase of an assemblage of properties in the Cane Creek Mountains totaling 456 acres, to permanently protect an important ridgeline corridor through the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area. SAHC’s acquisition of the land protects habitat for rare plants and animals, clean water sources and scenic mountain views from public lands.

“Together we protected a critical 456-acre chain that links previously unconnected sections of the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area,” says Michelle Pugliese, SAHC’s land protection director. “This one project made historic, landscape-scale strides in achieving the vision of the state natural area: to protect a long distance scenic and wildlife corridor from the Appalachian Trail south along the Cane Creek Mountains. It is one of the most impactful land acquisitions in the region.”

SAHC staff visit open areas on Yellow Mountain Connector tractsThe properties are situated along the high-elevation ridge that forms the boundary between Mitchell and Avery Counties south of Grassy Ridge. The tracts reach 4,600 ft. in elevation and adjoin SAHC’s Cane Creek Mountain and Little Hawk Mountain preserves, connecting sections of the North Carolina Yellow Mountain State Natural Area. The property is within five miles of 13 North Carolina Natural Heritage Significant Natural Heritage Areas, and SAHC’s acquisition of the land protects significant water resources and habitat for rare and threatened species.

“This transaction is especially important because our southern Appalachian mountains create a critical corridor for species to migrate in response to impacts from climate change,” says Pugliese. “This ridgeline is a crucial pathway for plants and animals to move for survival, and protecting this ridgeline contributes meaningfully to climate resiliency in our mountains.”

Waterfall and trilliumThe NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) awarded $1.2 million in grant funds toward the acquisition. In total, the acquisition protects over five miles of stream corridor and 304 acres of stream buffer. Permanent conservation of the land preserves portions of Soapstone Branch, Hawk Creek, Little Henson Creek and Big Spring Creek, as well as 24 headwater tributaries of Henson Creek and Cane Creek, which both flow directly into the North Toe River. A popular area for trout fishing, the North Toe River also provides high quality habitat for federally listed aquatic species.

Assembling multiple properties for protection at a landscape and watershed scale is a difficult but worthwhile process, according to Walter Clark, Executive Director, CWMTF. “The success of this complex project is the result of hard work and coordination by the land protection staff of SAHC and CWMTF.”

Large portions of the project area falls within two Audubon Society Important Bird Areas – the Roan Mountain and Roan-Cane Creek Mountains Important Bird Areas. Elevated ridgelines in these areas provide passage for substantial numbers of neotropical birds during migration, and several rare species breed in the area, including Common Raven, Golden-winged Warbler, and Northern Saw-whet Owl. High elevation rocky summit habitat on the undeveloped tracts provides home for a plethora of rare plants and animals. The project connects 22,000 acres of protected land on the Roan Massif with 838 acres of protected land in the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area. SAHC plans to own and manage the land as a nature preserve.

“We are deeply grateful for the generous support of philanthropists Fred and Alice Stanback, the NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund, SAHC supporters, and a grant from the Conservation Trust for North Carolina for making this critical conservation work possible,” adds Pugliese. A generous conservation partner also donated years of effort and transaction costs to acquire the multiple parcels in this package.

CWMTF Damon Hearne visits property

Damon Hearne, Western Field Representative of CWMTF, visits property.

About Clean Water Management Trust Fund:

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund was established by the General Assembly in 1996 as a non-regulatory organization with a focus on protecting and restoring the State’s land and water resources. It awards grants to non-profit and governmental organizations to protect land for natural, historical and cultural benefit, limit encroachment on military installations, restore degraded streams, and develop and improve stormwater treatment technology. www.cwmtf.nc.gov

Haw Orchard Ridge – 51 Acres Protected

In November 2019, SAHC purchased 51 acres on a prominent ridge near the Appalachian Trail in the Highlands of Roan. The Haw Orchard Ridge property adjoins Pisgah National Forest, rising to over 5,400 ft. just south of Roan High Knob. It is visible from the Appalachian Trail at Round Bald and Grassy Ridge Bald.

“Haw Orchard Ridge protects a portion of the well known red spruce-Fraser fir stand which stretches from Roan High Knob to Carvers Gap,” says Roan Stewardship Director Marquette Crockett. “This spruce-fir stand is used by numerous rare high elevation species including Red crossbill, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Pygmy Salamander. It is also inhabited by federally endangered species including the Carolina Flying Squirrel and the Spruce-Fir Moss Spider.  We hope that our protection of this property and restoration work will help to create a safe haven for these climate sensitive species.”

SAHC will manage the land as a nature preserve, restoring conifer habitat for birds with a recently awarded grant from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative.

“Protecting Haw Orchard Ridge has been a priority of SAHC’s for decades,” says Land Protection Director Michelle Pugliese. “Securing the rare high elevation habitat found on this property, bordering Pisgah National Forest and just down the mountain from the Appalachian Trail, is a great conservation achievement. We are so grateful to all of our supporters, philanthropic leaders Fred and Alice Stanback, and the Conservation Trust for North Carolina for providing funding to make this acquisition possible.”

Photo taken from Jane Bald on the Appalachian Trail, by Travis Bordley. Haw Orchard Ridge sits just below Roan High Knob, sandwiched between Round Bald (foreground) and Roan High Bluff (background). 

Doll Branch – 62 Acres Protected

Doll Branch Tract, photo courtesy Southwings

Doll Branch tract, aerial photo courtesy Southwings and Dennis Oakley of Carolinas’ Nature Photographers Association

Trout and AT hikers can rejoice – another piece of the Roan has been permanently protected!

We purchased 62 acres at Doll Branch in the Highlands of Roan this summer, protecting exceptional habitat and scenic mountain views in Carter County, TN. The land adjoins Cherokee National Forest and is less than ½ mile from the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT). Read more

Roan Recreation Updates 2019

We are working with Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), and Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club (TEHCC) to address recreational impacts in and around Carver’s Gap and Grassy Ridge. This area, with easy access to stunning scenic views along the Appalachian Trail, has experienced significant increases in visitation. We joined these partners for two work days this summer, to repair and restore a section of the trail going up Jane Bald. In addition, new signage and interpretative materials are planned for 2020.

Over the course of the summer, Roan Naturalist Sarah Jones interacted with more than 8,500 people on the Appalachian Trail. Sarah taught visitors about the ecology of the Roan Highlands and the role that SAHC and other partners play in protecting the landscape.  She shared Leave No Trace ethics and provided support for hikers of all levels. We are very appreciative to our friends at the ATC and the TEHCC for their support of this position.

College Students Volunteer in the Roan

Students from Mars Hill University and Warren Wilson College joined us this spring for a Golden-winged Warbler habitat management workday and camping trip along the Appalachian Trail in the Highlands of Roan.

The energetic volunteers cleared downed tree limbs and lopped saplings to create ideal breeding ground for this threatened species of neo-tropical migratory songbirds. Read more

Golden-winged Warbler Working Group

Birdwatching with Working Group membersIn Spring 2019, the Southern Appalachian Golden-winged Warbler Working Group, consisting of more than 10 agencies and organizations, met in the Roan Highlands to discuss landscape-scale conservation measures, including strategic land protection and cooperative management projects. SAHC was proud to host the group on our preserves and to assist with touring iconic public lands across the Roan. Read more

Elk Hollow Preserve Trail Work

Our Elk Hollow Preserve Volunteer Work Day in April was a success, thanks to an incredible group of folks who joined us in building trails, friendships, and partnerships! Read more

Invasive Feral Hogs Continue to Threaten the Roan

We are entering the fifth year of coordinated efforts to manage invasive feral hogs in the Highlands of Roan. These invasive feral hogs damage the fragile, globally important ecosystems of the Roan as they “root,” eating rare species and tearing up the terrain.  They also spread multiple diseases and pose a safety threat to outdoor recreation enthusiasts.

In November, the Feral Hog Working Group, part of our ongoing collaborative Roan Stewardship efforts, met at the SAHC office to discuss updates and plan future work.

“Since feral hogs can have devastating impacts on plants and wildlife, as well as human and livestock health, the situation requires coordinating a broad group of partners,” explains Marquette Crockett, SAHC’s Roan Stewardship Director. “This includes federal and state agencies in both NC and TN.” Read more