The conservation easement will permanently prohibit all residential subdivision and development, timber management, and other ground-disturbing activities. Up until awarding of the grant, the Fisher Creek tract was the largest remaining unprotected property in the Plott Balsams and the largest tract in such close proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, according to the CMWTF grant application.
“That’s the biggest news we’ve had in Sylva a long, long time,” said Mayor Brenda Oliver, announcing the CWMTF award last Thursday (Aug. 17).
Town board members began discussing placing the Fisher Creek tract in a conservation easement in 2005. A 1992 resolution by the town forbade the 1,088-acre property from being sold and prohibited the extraction of natural resources, thereby discouraging financial gain via any method other than placing the land in a conservation easement. However, board members worried about the effect their vote could have on future town boards’ ability to manage the watershed.
The Fisher Creek watershed is no longer used as Sylva’s water source. The land, located on the outskirts of town off Skyland Drive, was purchased in 1912. The watershed was decommissioned in 1992 when the town, along with other municipalities and county government, jointly formed the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority.
TWSA built a new water intake, treatment and transmission facility in Cullowhee to serve the town and central Jackson County, thereby negating the need for the already overtaxed Fisher Creek watershed. As part of the resolution creating TWSA, the town wrote in the clause that Fisher Creek would forever remain in the public domain.
The town appointed a commission called the Pinnacle Park Foundation to uphold the 1992 resolution and ensure that future town leaders preserve the watershed as well. Foundation projects have focused on developing a system of hiking trails that run all the way from Fisher Creek to Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Recently the Foundation has been working to make Park trails accessible to people with disabilities; however the project is at somewhat of a standstill due to financial needs and contractors selected to work on the trails being busy with other projects.
When a CWMTF grant is awarded, 40 percent of those funds must be spent on water related issues, such as preventing sedimentation or storm water management. The town has six months to hammer out the details of the easement with the Trust. The town of Sylva plans to develop a policy about how the easement will be managed, as well as what to do with the $3.5 million in funding.
“I would like to see us be able to use nothing more than the interest from the money and leave it for the future,” Oliver said.
In return for the $3.5 million grant award, which represents 45 percent of the total easement project cost, the town will donate half the market value of the land along with all of its significant standing timber value, approximately $4.1 million.