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.”
The 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.”
The 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.
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