Sandy Mush Creek Conservation Easement

When Simmons Covington Lettre and her brother Archer Covington inherited the mountain land their father once loved and enjoyed, they decided to follow through on his wishes to permanently protect 136 acres of the property with a conservation easement. Tom Covington purchased the land in Garrett Cove in 1972 and lived there on-and-off until his retirement, when he moved there full-time. Tom and his family developed close friendships with surrounding neighbors, including the Garrett family who sold him the land.

“Big Sandy Mush was his soul – his connection to spirit, his community – and he deeply cared about the land,” says Simmons. “My dad lived and worked for the NC legislature in Raleigh, and he used Sandy Mush as his refuge. He went there whenever the legislature was not in session. My brother and I also grew up mostly in Raleigh, but we spent time with our dad in Sandy Mush during the summer and enjoyed the chance to experience ‘the wild.’ We were just in the dirt all day. It was a different environment than we grew up in and helped us develop our lifelong love of the mountains, of the environment.”

“Dad really cared about the people in Sandy Mush and the health of the community as well as the health of the land,” continues Simmons. “When he retired he lived out there full time, about 15 of the last years of his life. For years he waged a war against kudzu. He wanted to conserve the land, and we wanted to make sure that we honored his wishes when he passed.”

Sandy Mush Creek runs through the heart of the property, which rises up forested mountain slopes on either side of the creek. Four headwater tributaries of Sandy Mush Creek flow through the land – over 1.5 miles of streams, including over one quarter mile classified by NC Dept. of Water Quality as Trout Waters. The Sandy Mush Creek conservation easement touches SAHC’s 235-acre conservation easement on Bee Branch, contributing to a network of SAHC-protected properties that totals over 1,400 acres. Elevations on the property range from 2,600 ft. at the flat bottomlands to 3,700 feet on the ridge. 

“Moderate topography with direct access to a state road and rural scenic beauty could have made this tract desirable for development,” says Land Protection Director Michelle Pugliese. “The Farm Heritage Trail, a driving tour that highlights the rural agricultural communities in western Buncombe County, passes less than a mile from this conservation easement. The property’s two ridgelines are visible from multiple points along the Farm Heritage Trail, including a farm stop at Sandy Hollar Farm, which is also protected by a conservation easement with SAHC. The Sandy Mush Creek conservation easement protects significant natural resources as well as the rural character of the region.”

Conservation of the land was made possible by contributions from generous donors, a donation of more than half the appraised value of the conservation easement from the landowners, and a $43,000 Buncombe County grant approved by the Land Conservation Advisory Board.

“Completing the conservation easement was a large process,” adds Simmons. “We appreciate the perseverance of Michelle and Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy in helping us continue through this process to complete the protection of the land, as our dad wanted.” 

A Tale of Three Trees, in Garrett Cove

The conservation easement at Sandy Mush Creek preserves a landscape interwoven with multigenerational stories and multiple family experiences. Three heritage trees stand around the historic house built in 1899, once the center of the Garrett family homeplace. 

“My father was close friends with Vance Garrett, whose family homeplace was there at that property,” recalls Simmons. “Vance’s uncle planted the giant maple tree in front of the house when he came back from serving in World War I, and it has stood there ever since.” 

“The oldest tree is an ancient white oak, probably 150 years old or more. When we were little, Dad built a playhouse for my brother and me under that white oak tree, and we painted a sign on the outside that said ‘Simmons and Archer’s clubhouse – little kids only’.  When my girls were young, he rebuilt the clubhouse for them and kept the sign. Now, my brother’s children are starting to enjoy it as well. We definitely want to keep this place in the family, for all of us to enjoy. My father’s tree is the newest, an apple tree planted in 2022 with his ashes entwined at its roots. These three trees form a triangle around the house, and all this history is embedded into the landscape – into the trees. These people are rooted there (literally) — and I’m so grateful to have them live on with us.”   

“One important thing about the land in Sandy Mush isn’t the land at all – but rather how it connects you with the people and community there,” continues Simmons. “Some of the friends I had out there growing up are still friends today, and they help look after the place if we can’t be there. The land and the community — that’s what makes it so special. We want to preserve it, for it to survive for future generations to spend time on the land. It’s a really special place, and important for the community.”

“In those later years, I would call to talk and ask my dad what he was doing, and he’d say he was just watching the seasons come in,” she adds. “He would spend time on the porch just watching the mountains. Recently my own kids have gone to college and I’ve had the time to go out there and stay, where it’s quiet. Now I know what he meant when he said he was ‘watching the seasons come in.’ When I go there I feel his spirit, feel connected to him – and it is really special to live into that experience, to share the way he was experiencing the land.”

Neighbor Perspective: Dale Hawkins, Sandy Hollar Farms

One of those friends and neighbors is Dale Hawkins, who works on his family land at Sandy Hollar Farms.

“I hope to see that generations to come experience the same kind of life that I have,” says Dale. “The land is still being used, but we’re not looking at houses dotting the mountaintops. I’m glad that Sandy Mush is one of those areas of Buncombe County that is most protected; we have several neighbors who have protected their land with SAHC.”

“The sad part is that in the future, the younger generation coming along will have fewer ties to the land than my generation,” continues Dale. “They didn’t get to cherish those times learning to work the land with grandad, like I did, and they don’t have the direct ties back to the land. Both of my grandfathers farmed, and I’ve followed in their footsteps, although our production has changed. I am the fifth generation here, and I’ve seen tremendous changes in agriculture since I was a kid. Times have changed, crops have changed, but I’m still farming.  A friend of mine once said ‘We as human beings are 3-4 generations away from knowing how to produce food, and that’s really hard to gain back.’ Once you grow homes on the land, you can’t grow crops. When it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

“I think all of us have to look up and say ‘Where is my food coming from?’ I may be a small dot producer, but It takes a lot of small dots to feed the world. If you’ve eaten up all your prime soils, where is your food coming from? You can’t grow more mountains, and once the trees have been cut down and the land developed, there’s no sequestering of carbon or ways to tie up the rainfall to prevent saturation and worsening floods. I want the mountains to stay as they are. If we have the opportunity to hold a piece and preserve it, that is something that can be enjoyed 100 years from now.”

“WNC is very special. Everyone comes to see and enjoy the mountains, but if we keep carving off a piece here and there, this place would be changed forever. We don’t recover that – when it’s gone, it’s gone. We are fortunate that we have a lot of people in the area who have moved here and understood how special this place is, and they have taken on stewardship of the land and helped to protect it and not subdivide it. Conservation is very important here; once we change the mountains, you can’t get that back.”  

In Memoriam: Tom Covington

Thomas Leak Covington Jr. passed away in December 2021 at the age of 82. Born in Rockingham, NC and a graduate of Davidson College, he loved the Western North Carolina mountains. He moved to his beloved Big Sandy Mush near Asheville in 1977 and worked for Buncombe County government. Tom hosted many “Spring Thaw” weekends at his farm, complete with pickin’ on the porch, camping in the fields, and telling lies from rocking chairs.

In 1981, Tom moved back to Raleigh to become the NC General Assembly’s Director of Fiscal Research – a post he held for 18 years. As one former legislator shared, “Tom had little patience with fools or self-centered politicians, but he understood that you had to be able to work with them to at least some degree, or what needed to be done would not happen.” He led an amazing team and loved them deeply. After retirement from the NC Legislature in 1999, Tom was the Executive Director of the NC Progress board where he spent his days thinking about the future of his beloved state and working to ensure that NC was on track toward continuous improvement for its land and citizens. Tom was also involved in many community projects and served on many boards. 

Upon retirement, Tom moved permanently to Big Sandy Mush. His best days were spent sitting on the front porch watching the seasons change on the mountains. Often sitting beside him were his two Plott Hounds. He’d swap stories on the porch with his neighbors and friends who frequently visited his haven in the mountains. He entertained his grandchildren by helping them build fairy houses in the woodshop or pushing them on the swings underneath the 150-year old oak tree in the backyard. He played his autoharp and sang with family and friends, pickin’ and singing deep into the evenings.