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

Big Creek – 110 Acres

Big CreekSAHC recently purchased 110 acres in Macon County to protect a headwater source of the nationally significant Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River. The property is just north of the North Carolina/Georgia border, surrounded by the Nantahala and Chattahoochee National Forests, and will be added to the Nantahala National Forest for the public to enjoy.

“Big Creek is an important tributary of the Chattooga River, a beloved river where people enjoy outdoor recreation like whitewater rafting, kayaking and fishing,” says Carl Silverstein, SAHC’s executive director. “Conserving this property permanently protects critical water resources and habitat.”

A long-time priority for protection, SAHC plans to own the Big Creek tract 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. Read more

Big Creek and Tanasee Ridge

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.

Big Creek

Big Creek and Tanasee Ridge MapThe 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.

Sunset Falls

“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).”

Tanasee Ridge

Tanasee Ridge

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

Hiking at Tanasee Ridge

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.”

Bowditch Bottoms – 87 Acres

Bowditch Bottoms with Celo Mtn in background

Bowditch Bottoms with Celo Knob in the background, photo by C Pawlik, Carolinas’ Nature Photographers (CNPA)

The Bowditch Bottoms project has been a long time in the process – beginning in 2014 – and we are thrilled that it successfully closed in June! This 87-acre property in Yancey County contains important soils, farmland, undeveloped forested and non-forested habitat for wildlife, headwaters to the South Toe River, and intact wetland and riparian corridors. It is visible from the Mount Mitchell Scenic Byway and several higher-elevation vantage points in the Black Mountains and the Highlands of the Roan. Read more

Chestnut Mountain

 

Chestnut Mountain is close to highway accessUnique habitat and clean water conservation project paired with exciting potential for outdoor recreation! We have purchased 448 acres at Chestnut Mountain near the Town of Canton, permanently protecting sources of clean water and forested habitat in an important wildlife corridor. SAHC plans to give the conserved property to the Town of Canton, after we finish raising funds that are needed to re-pay a bridge loan we took out to buy the property. This will create the possibility for easily accessible outdoor recreation just off US Hwy 19/23 and Interstate 40.

Animal track“This property is dynamic, with a mosaic of habitat types – which is really good for wildlife – and different settings for people to enjoy various types of experiences on the land,” says Conservation Director Hanni Muerdter. “The property starts at 2,360 feet elevation at Hwy 19/23 and then rises to 3,400 feet at the peak of Chestnut Mountain.  At the higher elevations, forested ridgelines and coves situated in an important wildlife corridor provide exceptional habitat for plants and animals. It contains pockets of gentle mature hardwood forest with laurel and rhododendron, forested slopes facing a variety of directions, and an open field and early successional edge area beneficial for birds. The amount of wildlife activity on the tract is truly impressive!” 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

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

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

SAHC Honored with Pigeon River Award

On Tuesday December 3, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Haywood County Agricultural Advisory Board, and The Conservation Fund received Haywood Waterways Association’s Pigeon River Award, an award honoring individuals or organizations that have made significant contributions to protecting land and water resources in Haywood County. SAHC has been conserving land in the county since the early 1990s — from the first conservation easement at Cataloochee Ranch to recent protection of 139 acres in the Beaverdam watershed and 50 acres in Crabtree.

“Haywood County is such a special place, and we are lucky to have so many great organizations, landowners, community leaders, and funders working to permanently protect its land and water resources – it takes all of us,” says Conservation Director Hanni Muerdter. “We’re honored to receive the Pigeon River Award along with wonderful partners at Haywood County Agricultural Advisory Board and The Conservation Fund. SAHC will continue to team with partners and willing landowners to protect the scenic vistas, wildlife corridors, fertile soils, and land securing clean water in Haywood.”

To date, SAHC has protected 38 properties in Haywood County, totaling over 12,100 acres. Some of the organization’s most notable conservation projects in the county include: SAHC’s first conservation easement project, which was accomplished at Cataloochee Ranch on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1993; the addition of 240 acres to the Cold Mountain Game Lands; 7,300 acres of the Waynesville Watershed, a NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund project in partnership with the Conservation Trust for NC; and 874 acres in the Town of Canton’s Rough Creek Watershed, another Clean Water Management Trust Fund project, which provides miles of hiking and mountain biking trails for public use.

In the past 12 months, SAHC has purchased 187 acres behind the I-40 rest area in the Pigeon River Gorge near Hurricane Ridge to protect animal habitat in an important wildlife corridor; 139 acres in the Beaverdam Watershed area of Haywood County, linking the Town of Canton’s Rough Creek watershed property with an existing SAHC preserve at Doubleside Knob; and 50 acres in Crabtree near the Buncombe/Haywood county line in order to protect corridors for wildlife movement, water quality, scenic views, and farmland. Last December, SAHC also completed agricultural conservation easement projects protecting 385 acres of multi-generational family farmland in Rogers Cove in Crabtree.

“Permanently protecting areas of low-impact use reduces land use pressure, stormwater impacts, and the consequent degradation of water quality,” says Eric Romaniszyn, executive director of Haywood Waterways Association. “We appreciate and support SAHC’s work and all our Haywood County partners to protect these lands, and in turn, maintain the high quality of our watersheds.”

SAHC is grateful for the support of many partners and contributors who make these projects possible, including our members, private donors, The Pigeon River Fund of The Community Foundation of Western North CarolinaN.C. Clean Water Management Trust FundN.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Services.