Sandy Mush outing

Sandy Mush – 25 Years of Conservation

Sandy Mush conservation map 2020Mountain ridges, low-lying farms, beautiful streams and forested hills coalesce into a quiet rural community in the corner where Buncombe, Haywood, and Madison Counties meet. This idyllic haven has been the beloved home to generations of hard-working farmers as well as a treasured retreat to relative newcomers. We’ve been cultivating relationships and conserving land in this beautiful area for decades, and we are very grateful to all the partners, landowners, and supporters who make conservation in Sandy Mush possible.

Bee Branch viewWhat makes this area so unique for conservation? A combination of agricultural land and fertile farming soils, secluded coves and ridges that make excellent wildlife corridors, and a plethora of stream sources. All potentially under threat of development as the population and popularity of the region continues to swell. Unlike SAHC’s other five conservation focus areas, where we often concentrate on connecting to or filling in gaps within national forests or state parks, the French Broad River Valley focus area did not have an existing conservation skeleton on which to build. By conscientiously creating long-term relationships with landowners in the Sandy Mush area, we have established a framework of contiguous protected land, and we continue to work diligently to protect important tracts while the opportunity remains.

In its remoteness, Sandy Mush is a close-knit community with a shared appreciation for the beauty of the land, history, farming experience, and respect for nature. This land is steeped in history, and families with long-standing connections to the area who have farmed here for generations — with names like Duckett, Wells, and Reeves — have worked with SAHC to permanently protect their land. We are grateful to all the landowners who have built relationships with us over time and shared news about conservation in the community. Here are a few of
their stories.

Steve Duckett

Bill Duckett“My parents, Bill and Mabel Duckett, were one of the first to do a conservation easement in the Sandy Mush area — it was really a new concept to the area at the time. Sandy Mush is one of the few remaining farming communities in Buncombe County. A lot of farmers don’t have retirement resources aside from their land, and may have to sell off land in order to be able to retire.  Dad had heard about some people doing that, and he really didn’t want to go that route. He started doing research and reached out to SAHC about the possibility of farm conservation easements. He and Mom were able to get money towards retirement out of the conservation easement purchase [they also donated part of the value of the easement], and the land was preserved for farming, in a more natural state. It was really a
win-win for everyone.

Connectivity is an important aspect of conservation work in this area. With Sandy Mush connecting over the ridge to Haywood County, you have some large areas of undeveloped land. However,  these large tracts are getting more and more rare with development pressure  in Buncombe and surrounding counties. It’s extremely difficult to purchase land and pay for it with farming activity alone. Some people are making it happen with small scale local operations and creative endeavors, but the 2- 3- 400-acre farms of the past are really getting scarce.  So it becomes more challenging conserve land. SAHC is doing a good job of putting together parcels to create a protected network of land.

Conservation is an option I think people should consider as we’re starting to transition now from larger farms to smaller operations and/or retirement. Many farmers would like to see the land stay more in a natural state or farming landscape. Also, the tourism economy here is dependent on that local food production and these scenic surroundings. It all goes hand in hand.”

Terri Wells, Bee Branch FarmTerri Wells

“Since I was a child, I have had a deep connection to Sandy Mush and to the land that makes up our family farm.  Our family has farmed a significant portion of this land for more than 200 years.  There are the stories that I heard as a child while working with my family in the tobacco and tomato fields; these stories are part of the history of Sandy Mush that ground me in this sense of place.  And beyond the stories, my connection is deeper and more visceral.  The smells, the tastes, the feel of the air; I am fortunate to call this beautiful and special place home.  I am pleased that my family worked together to conserve more than 500 acres of our family farm in a permanent conservation easement with SAHC in 2009, and that many of our neighbors are also working with SAHC to conserve our mountains, forests, and farmland in Sandy Mush.  We have a strong community and conservation ethic that makes me proud to call this place home.”

Ray Hearne

Ray HearneRay was born to a Quaker family and studied the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism in her adult life. She nourishes an enduring respect for and consecration of the natural world, which she calls “the sacredness of critters and the environment that sustains them.” Ray grew up as one of six siblings who helped out at the Hearne family dairy farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. In 1967 her parents moved to Willow Cove in Sandy Mush. Visiting them periodically, Ray found that Sandy Mush was one of the most beautiful places she had ever been. In 1991 she purchased 62 acres here and began working to remove exotic invasive plant species. Ray wanted to make sure that the land would remain protected long after she’s gone, so she explored conservation options with SAHC to make that permanent protection possible. She considers her conservation easement with SAHC to be one of her most significant contributions to the “remarkable diversity of Sandy Mush flora and fauna and indeed, to the well-being of Mother Earth”.