Wiles Creek

Wiles Creek close-upImagine a verdant forest with lush ferns growing underneath full, mature canopies. The slushing rush of stream waters echoes all around, lulling you into a state of calm relaxation. Nearby, wildflowers in meadow openings flush with sunlight set the stage for busy activity from pollinators (and their predators), hinting at the array of wildlife which call these places home. Damp earth and plentiful rocks harbor a healthy population of salamanders. Fortunately this stunning oasis in the Highlands of Roan – SAHC’s new Wiles Creek Preserve – is now permanently protected. We are grateful to the committed conservation-minded folks – including SAHC members, a former landowner, Brad and Shelli Stanback, and the Carolina Bird Club – who made protection of this beautiful sanctuary possible.

Wiles Creek mapSAHC recently purchased 166 acres in Mitchell County, NC adjoining Pisgah National Forest, within the Audubon Society’s Roan Mountain Important Bird Area. The undeveloped tract is highly visible from the public overlook at Roan High Knob. Part of a landscape of protected lands with other SAHC-conserved properties, the Wiles Creek Preserve will be owned by SAHC in the long term as a nature preserve and will be managed for priority bird habitats, water quality, and other natural features. Read more

Roan Naturalist Kalie Pierce

KalieAs Roan Naturalist, I am thankful to have become so intimate with this unique habitat. The Roan Highlands have been a special place for me to visit throughout my years as a student at East TN State University, and as I passed through the area during my AT thru-hike last year. I am proud to have served in this position working with the many different organizations and volunteer groups that protect this land. Read more

Roan Stewardship Updates 2020

balds management volunteersFrom seasonal bird surveys to trail management, education, and habitat restoration, the Roan Stewardship crew continues to care for our flagship conservation focus area. We are grateful to our partners at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for their support in this work!

Like many things in our world, SAHC’s grassy balds management looked different in 2020. We hand-mowed a total of 7.5 acres from Round Bald to Grassy Ridge, which is about the typical acreage mowed by our Grassy Ridge Mow Off and Roany Boyz events. Our first priority was to keep staff and volunteers safe and comfortable, so we scaled back the number of folks allowed to be out each day to less than ten people, total. We relied on long term volunteers, who knew what to expect and didn’t mind following safety protocols set by both SAHC and the U.S. Forest Service. However, due to state regulations, we were not able to cooperate with the NC BRIDGE program this year. NC BRIDGE has been doing the “heavy lift” of balds management for more than 15 years, mowing every day for two weeks and carrying out equipment for our volunteers. Read more

Smith Family Volunteers

smith family youth volunteersDavid and Melissa Smith and their children Otto, Clyde, and Asa spent a weekend managing grassy balds habitat at Grassy Ridge and camping under the stars together. It’s become something of a family tradition. Otto has been helping with the Grassy Balds Mow-Off since he was 5 years old and understands the importance of habitat management; now in high school, he asks about it every year before it’s even on the calendar. Read more

Tiger Creek

lower meadow at Tiger CreekThanks to supporters like you, in May 2020 we purchased 54 acres surrounded by Cherokee National Forest in the Highlands of Roan, within 2,000 feet of the Appalachian Trail. SAHC will own and manage the property to protect habitat and water resources until it can be added to Cherokee National Forest.

The Tiger Creek property rises in elevation from 3,400 feet to nearly 4,400 feet, just a short distance from the Clyde Smith Shelter on the Appalachian Trail. This stunning tract features an open field and early successional habitat for songbirds, beautiful tributary stream of Tiger Creek, and large, high elevation rock outcrop. Read more

Roaring Creek Valley

Roaring Creek conservation mapTwo new acquisitions in Roaring Creek join our network of protected land in the Highlands of Roan. These two tracts adjoin other SAHC preserves on the slopes of Big Yellow Mountain, together protecting hundreds of acres of northern hardwood and high elevation red oak forests, rising up to the boundary of the Big Yellow Mountain Preserve, co-managed by SAHC with our partners at The Nature Conservancy.

Most of these properties are within the Big Yellow Mountain Natural Area and are part of the Audubon Society’s Roan Mountain Important Bird Area. They contain thousands of linear feet of tributary streams and headwater seeps, feeding into Roaring Creek. The North Toe River and Roaring Creek have been identified as critical to protecting water quality in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and the watershed supports a host of rare species, including the Federally Endangered Appalachian Elktoe mussel. Read more

30 Years of Roan Stewardship!

SAHC and USFS Botanist Gary Kauffman surveying Gray's lily

SAHC and USFS Botanist/Ecologist Gary Kauffman survey Gray’s lily populations in the Roan, 2019.

You may already know that SAHC has been working for more than 45 years to protect and conserve our mountain home. And, you may also know that we trace the origin of our organization to the Roan Highlands, where SAHC’s founders first began efforts to conserve the land and views surrounding the Appalachian Trail. But, did you know that our efforts to actively steward and manage those lands started 30 years ago, with the formation of what is now known as the Roan Stewardship Committee?

Roan field crew in 1987

1987 field crew doing gassy balds surveys for the development of the first balds management plan. Photo by Paul Sommers

The Roan Stewardship Committee is an ambitious collaboration of multiple partners including government agencies, nonprofit organizations, recreation clubs, scientists, and individuals passionate about conservation of the unique ecological communities found in the Roan Highlands. It began with a handful of individuals concerned about long-term stewardship of Roan’s unique ecosystems.  Now 30 years later, the Roan Stewardship Committee consists of more than 15 agencies and organizations. Some groups, including the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, are long time partners, while others – like the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture – are new to our collaboration. From the beginning, SAHC has formed the nexus of this collaboration, facilitating the Roan Stewardship Committee meetings and partnership efforts.

Judy Murray, retired SAHC Roan Stewardship Director, led those stewardship efforts with an unwavering focus for more than 25 years, and handed over a vibrant and focused Roan Stewardship program to Roan Stewardship Director Marquette Crockett in 2014. In January this year (2020), Marquette facilitated the 30th meeting of the Roan Stewardship Committee.

“Digging through previous meeting notes this winter, I found the agenda from the first Roan Stewardship Committee meeting,” shares Marquette.

From Paul Somers, 1989:

“….I have reserved two cabins (number 19 and 20) at Roan Mountain State Park, for the evening of February 15, 1990 and the following day February 16. The purposes of the meeting, as I see them right now are to:

1. Review any completed sections of the Balds Management Plan

2. Formulate positions on pesticide use on the Roan Mountain (balds and spruce-fir particularly)

3. Review the status of the Hampton Creek Cove Management Plan

4. Discuss plans for the upcoming field season.

5. Discuss alternatives to AT relocation onto Grassy Ridge.”

SAHC and USFS staff plan for balds management.

SAHC and USFS Staff Planning for Grassy Balds Management. (Marquette Crockett left, Sue Fruchey right).

When the Committee met this year, similar items dominated the agenda. The Roan Stewardship Committee is reviewing the new Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan and about to embark on an update of the Balds Management Plan. This winter, we’ve been working with the TN Division of Natural Areas to update the management plan for Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area to include new priorities and address new threats. The Roan Stewardship Committee also shared reports about various partners’ work and discussed the upcoming field season — including red spruce-Fraser Fir restoration and grassy balds management.  

“Similarities between the 1990 and 2020 meeting agendas illustrate a very important point – at SAHC, forever really does mean forever,” says Marquette. “Before coming to SAHC, I had worked for different entities (including the government) and witnessed initiatives come and go — people move on, directives change. But, that hasn’t happened on the Roan. Many wonderful people have committed entire lifetimes to conservation of the Roan Highlands, and more importantly, they have handed down their knowledge and commitment to new generations.”

“I am thankful for all the quirky, brilliant, and absolutely dedicated people who have made the Roan Highlands what they are today,” adds Marquette. “The conservation and ecological management of the Roan is a complex task spanning generations, and it simply would not be possible without the support of SAHC’s members and partners.”

Cheers for 30 years of Roan Stewardship!

Get Involved — Outings and Volunteer Opportunities

Curious about what makes the Highlands of Roan so special? Each year we host a full day of outings and social gathering in the Highlands of Roan to enjoy and introduce people to the wonders of this special landscape. This year, our annual June Jamboree will be held on Saturday, June 13.

Want to help with caring for Roan’s unique grassy bald habitat? We also host an volunteer weekend each year — the Grassy Ridge Mow-Off — which presents an opportunity for people to help with hands-on habitat management. Come for the day or backpack to the work site and camp with us to enjoy stunning sunset/sunrise on Roan’s “sky islands.”

Save the Date! The Grassy Ridge Mow-Off this year will be Saturday-Sunday July 18-19.

About the Highlands of Roan

Straddling the border of Tennessee’s Carter County and North Carolina’s Mitchell and Avery Counties, the Roan Mountain massif (also known as the Highlands of Roan) is a series of mountain peaks and ridges that rise above 4,000 feet in elevation. They are renowned for their exceptional biological diversity and magnificent beauty.

The grassy bald communities of the Roan were once kept open by a combination of weather conditions and grazing by prehistoric “megaherbivores”. Imagine a herd of elephant-sized mastodons grazing these mountaintops! In the recent past the balds have been maintained by natural herbivores (elk, bison, deer, etc). Farmers later grazed their livestock on these same slopes. Currently the balds are maintained through livestock grazing and mowing. Many rare plants, including the beautiful Gray’s lily, are found growing on the balds. Management of the balds is accomplished through partnerships between the U.S. Forest Service, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club, and numerous volunteers and researchers.

Byrd Farm – Mitchell County

Charolais cattle on Byrd farmByrd Charolais Farm – Mitchell County (Highlands of Roan Area)

The Highlands of Roan are known for rare and fragile ecological communities as well as magnificent, panoramic views studded with scenic mountain farms. At the end of 2019, SAHC permanently protected 127 acres of beautiful family farmland in Mitchell County, preserving bucolic views along NC Hwy 226. The Byrd Charolais* Farm is an agricultural gem, with water conservation practices in place and a long heritage of mountain farming. One of just a few farm preservation projects SAHC has completed in the Highlands of Roan, the property is now permanently protected for future generations.

* Charolais are a breed of cattle which originated in France in the historic Charolais region. Read more

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

SAHC Land Protection Director Michelle Pugliese on Haw Orchard Ridge

SAHC Land Protection Director Michelle Pugliese on Haw Orchard Ridge

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.”

Haw Orchard Ridge and Roan Highlands mapSAHC 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.”

Scenic view photo above 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). 

Virtual Tour of Haw Orchard Ridge

SAHC and our partners at the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative are working to restore spruce-fir forests on this preserve, with support from a small grant program from the Cornell Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative and the Land Trust Alliance. On a bright spring morning, our staff was thrilled to do the initial bird point count surveys for this property. How many species can you hear calling in the video?

PLEASE NOTE: The camera could not pickup all the bird calls that were being heard at that time. For example; at 0:28 Marquette identifies a ruffed grouse off in the distance while the camera only detects the call of a dark eyed junco. Similarly at 2:10 Marquette identifies a Canada Warbler visually while you can hear the song of a veery.