The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee has outgrown its name.
As Paul Carlson tooled out of downtown Franklin, houses faded into rolling hayfields, and the Little Tennessee River soon took up its flank position along the edge of N.C. 28.
History will no doubt remember Paul Carlson as one of the great visionaries of our time in Western North Carolina. As the founder and long time director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee retires from his leadership role, we pause to reflect on the contributions he’s made.
Few men can claim a legacy in the Southern Appalachians as deep or long-lasting as Paul Carlson’s
Two of Western North Carolina’s most storied conservation groups, both based in Macon County, merged this month into a single entity.
The Little Tennessee Watershed Association has been absorbed into The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and is being touted as a win-win for regional conservation efforts and as a means to financially help underpin regional conservation efforts.
The Land Trust name will be retained for now. The merged organization has the combined backing of more than 500 members.
The smaller of the two nonprofits, the watershed association, had just three employees. It has struggled to adequately tap spigots of grant funding. Those traditional nonprofit-geared pools of money are continuing to dry up in the face of the difficult economy.
The Land Trust, on the other hand, just completed its best fundraising year ever. A few years ago, anticipating stagnating grant opportunities, the larger eight-employee group deliberately and successfully began to diversify its revenue stream. The Land Trust now relies as much on individual, private support as on grant funding.
Such transformations haven’t proven possible, at least not to the same degree, for smaller nonprofits such as the watershed association. Also difficult for small groups is keeping and recruiting experienced board members, thereby ensuring stable governance.
Often small groups are almost totally reliant on the energy and charisma of a single leader, said Paul Carlson, who helped guide The Land Trust from a similar small nonprofit to, at least for this region, a large one.
“It’s in part a question of economy of scale,” Carlson said. “I think the toughest job I know is to be director of a small nonprofit, because you have to wear so many hats.”
Jenny Sanders, executive director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, revived the nonprofit five years ago, he said. Talks were actually under way then to perhaps merge the two groups, but that didn’t happen because, Carlson said, of the caliber of Sanders’ leadership.
Sanders opted not to take a new job with the Land Trust following the merger. The decision was personal, a desire on her part to pursue other interests, she said. Sanders supports the merger, saying it simply “makes sense” for both organizations.
“I believe for a lot of reasons this was absolutely a smart move,” she said. “And it will provide a unified front for conservation in the six westernmost counties.”
The watershed association’s most recognizable project is ongoing aquatic monitoring conducted by a corps of volunteers and overseen by Bill McLarney of Macon County. The biologist has studied the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries for more than two decades. McLarney, via the watershed association, has assembled a body of data on what lives in the Little Tennessee waterways — from miniscule larvae to newly discovered fish species — that’s difficult to find duplicated elsewhere in the U.S. McLarney’s work helped the Little Tennessee earn a reputation as one of the most biologically intact rivers. The baseline of what species are supposed to live in the river serves a greater purpose, however. If a species turns up in fewer numbers or disappears, it would alert future researchers that trouble was brewing.
McLarney, an original founder of both organizations, described the merger as “a natural progression” for the nonprofits.
Ken Murphy, board chairman for the Land Trust, said timing of the merger couldn’t be better.
“We already had plans to broaden our scope, and the areas we touch,” Murphy said. “Land and water are almost inseparable.”
The Little Tennessee often touts its work of protecting land along the Little Tennessee corridor as protecting the river itself, based on the premise that saving surrounding land from development keeps the river ecosystem from being disturbed.
The now 10-employee Land Trust plans to expand its work further into the Tuckasegee and Hiawassee river basins, the board chair said.
There are no plans at this time to merge The Land Trust with additional conservation organizations, Carlson said.
Murphy emphasized that there is an important people component to that strategy of concentrating on both land and water — to connect all of us to the natural world.
The merger will move those plans forward exponentially, Murphy said, because it serves as an opportunity “to bring in-house real expertise on water issues” and combine that knowledge with those conservation tasks The Land Trust has long focused upon.
The Land Trust, established 15 years ago, has forged the very concept of private land protection in the state’s westernmost counties, plus successfully worked on habitat restoration and cultural landscape conservation. The latter includes farmland and historic preservation. The group’s crowning success was the preservation of the 4,500-acre Needmore Tract, which straddles Macon and Swain counties along the Little Tennessee River, and was the likely site of development.
The watershed association helped secure the Needmore tract, plus partnered with the Land Trust and Macon County’s Soil and Water Conservation District on stream-bank restoration.
The watershed association has a history of open advocacy on conservation issues, particularly under the out-spoken Sanders, its most-recent and final executive director. By contrast, The Land Trust has been more low-key and behind-the-scenes in its approach, though there have been issues in which the board has elected to become openly involved.
“The Land Trust has tried hard to not get caught up in polarizing issues,” Carlson said, “and we will continue to lead on results-oriented work.”
Carlson and Murphy both said The Land Trust is considering a more pro-active stance when it comes to conservation protections. And the spunky, outspoken and out-front history of the watershed association should slide nicely into that new focus.
“In the past, we have taken public positions on issues that involve the environment and conservation in our area,” Murphy said of The Land Trust. “But we plan to be a little more public about our positions and views of things that are happening in the region.”
• The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee works to conserve the waters, forests, farms, and heritage of the Upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River Valleys. The organization works in partnership with private landowners, public agencies, and others to conserve land.
• The Little Tennessee Watershed Association works to protect and restore the health of the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries through monitoring, education, habitat restoration and citizen action.
Voices from the American Land — along with local partners Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, the Wilderness Society, Tuckasegee Reader, Western North Carolina Alliance, Wild South, Canary Coalition, Mad Batter Café, Tuckasegee Alliance, New Native Press and City Lights bookstore — presented the Every Breath Sings Mountains event at the Jackson County Public Library on Sept. 23.
The speakers, music and readings drew a packed house to the new library. The entire event was also recorded, and the video is both entertaining and thoughtful.
For those who couldn’t make it, organizers videotaped the entire event. Here are the links, in the proper chronological order.
Here is some information about some of the writers and community members who took part in and organized the event:
• Thomas Rain Crowe is an award winning author, poet an essayist. His memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Philip D. Reed Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment for 2006. Crowe’s literary archives have been purchased by the Duke University Special Collections Library. He is a respected, outspoken advocate for the conservation and protection of the Southern Appalachian landscape, her people and her culture. Crowe lives on a small farm along the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.
• Barbara R. Duncan is education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee. Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, which she co-authored with Brett Riggs, received the Preserve America Presidential Award. Her book Living Stories of the Cherokee received a Thomas Wolfe Literary Award and World Storytelling Award. The singer-songwriter has also written a poetry chapbook, Crossing Cowee Mountain. Duncan lives on a tributary of the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.
• Brent Martin is Southern Appalachian director for The Wilderness Society. Martin is a recipient of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s James S. Dockery Environmental Leadership Award. Martin has published two collections of poetry, Poems from Snow Hill and A Shout in the Woods. Martin’s poems and essays have appeared in Pisgah Review, North Carolina Literary Review, New Southerner, Tar River Poetry and elsewhere. Martin lives in the Cowee community.
• Western Carolina University historian George Frizzell, Jackson County farmer and former commissioner William Shelton, and Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe. There will also be “a conversation with authors” featuring authors Charles Frazier, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, George Ellison and Keith Flynn. The Ian Moore Song & Dance Bluegrass Ensemble will provide music. There will also be a meet-the-authors book-signing reception catered by the Mad Batter Café. And all audience members will receive a free copy of the chapbook.
For two decades, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association in Franklin has been monitoring the health of the river’s water basin from north Georgia to Fontana Lake.
Last week, the group released a State of the Streams report, showcasing both its work and what has been found over the years, particularly the trends from 2002 through 2010. The unveiling took place at a noon luncheon of the Macon County League of Women Voters in Franklin, with about 30 people in attendance.
Overall in the upper Little Tennessee River watershed, two worrisome points stand out, according to the report. Monitoring of threatened and endangered species in the mainstream below Franklin suggests that the decline of native mussels is long term and not just cyclical; and a fish species, the Wounded Darter, has almost completely disappeared from the Cullasaja River.
The good news? The most significant development was the closing in 2006 of the Fruit of the Loom plant in Rabun Gap, Ga., which the group said accounted for more than 95 percent of the total permitted industrial discharges to the entire watershed.
While the closing was hard on those whose livelihoods were dependent on the plant (30 percent of the workforce was from Macon County), benefits were almost immediately visible in the downstream ecosystem. This included the recovery of riverweed, an aquatic plant of the Little Tennessee.
Additionally, in Highlands, macroinvertebrates from Mill Creek are showing slow but continual recovery following the late 1990s shutdown of the Highlands sewer plant.
The condition of the river in the now-protected Needmore area (since 1999) also suggests that positive actions have, at the very least, “counterbalanced” negative trends. The Needmore tract, purchased from Duke Energy to protect it from development through a combination of private and public funding, has been under management by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission since 2002.
“Thirteen miles of free-flowing river, no houses or bridges — that’s a pretty unique thing in this part of the world. It’s a really exceptional piece of river,” Bill McLarney, an aquatic biologist who has studied the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries for at least two decades, said of the Needmore stretch of the Little Tennessee River.
Additionally, “we are relatively blessed that we don’t have a lot of point-source pollution,” McLarney said. “Habitat modification and sedimentation is the biggest problem here … that’s what we need to focus the most attention on if we want to see healthier streams.”
Jason Meador, the watershed program coordinator for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, said the group focuses on a “holistic approach.” The staff and the many volunteers involved don’t just study fish, they also look at and study everything involved in a healthy watershed.
That’s also involved restoration projects, such as taking out culverts and replacing them with bridges, such as the group did on Bradley Creek. The culverts — essentially places where a stream is forced into a giant pipe to pass under a road — often block fish from being able to travel freely up and down tributaries, particularly if the culvert is crumbling, Meador said.
Additionally, the culverts often can’t handle big storm flows, flushing excess sediment.
The upper Little Tennessee watershed covers 450 square miles of forests, fields, towns and communities in the heart of the Southern Appalachians.
With headwaters in Rabun County, Georgia at the confluence of Billy and Keener creeks, the Little Tennessee River flows north and northwest for 55 miles, unimpeded for its entire length except for Porters Bend Dam, which forms the relatively tiny (250 acre) Lake Emory in the town of Franklin. Before reaching Lake Emory, the river makes its way through a flat, wide valley, dropping less than 50 feet of elevation in more than 10 miles of channel length. Here, the valley is defined by the Nantahala mountains to the west and the Fishhawk mountains and Blue Ridge escarpment to the east.
The stretch of the river between Lake Emory and Fontana Lake is one of the highest quality rivers in the Southern Appalachians, making it unique among the Blue Ridge rivers to have escaped much of the industrial pollution that has degraded so many other rivers in the region, according to the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.
It’s a busy day at the farmers market, and William Shelton is red-faced and sweaty as he hands out boxes of vegetables to his regular weekly customers. One of his four sons — his namesake, Wil — is manning the cash box, adept after three or so summers of making correct change while exchanging pleasantries.
Farming, at least at the Shelton place in Whittier, is a family affair. And keeping that tradition alive and profitable hinges on making personal and meaningful connections with the people who purchase what the farm produces. This is true, not only for the Shelton family, but for all small farmers in Western North Carolina — and one of the best opportunities for farmers to do just that is coming up this month at the third-annual Local Food Gala in Macon County.
The gala is a fundraising event for the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, headquartered in Franklin. Last year, the sold-out gala raised $22,000 for the group, which since 1999 has conserved more than 12,000 acres in its six-county area of Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Jackson, including 1,000 acres on actual working farms.
Farmers such as Shelton donate produce for the event so proceeds can go entirely toward the land trust.
“It’s a good event, with really good food, and it’s mutually beneficial for everyone involved,” Shelton said as he handed a woman a box of vegetables grown on his farm, taking time to tell her that yes, corn was included this time in the selection.
Jill Wiggins, outreach coordinator for the Land Trust, said the money raised through the farm-to-table event goes into the group’s agricultural fund to help preserve farmland.
In addition to showcasing what’s in season, local and fresh (though there is a possibility that locally grown but frozen asparagus also might be included on the menu), the gala features a local wine and beer tasting. Plus a silent auction featuring “experiential packages,” Wiggins said, including a scholarship for John C. Campbell Folkschool in Brasstown.
“Not only do local foods reward our sense of taste, but locally produced food nourishes and strengthens our families and communities, sustains our mountain farming traditions, and protects our natural resources through productive land conservation practices,” Wiggins said, adding, “there’s nothing else like the local food gala. It’s a great feeling to be there.”
That’s true, said Ron Arps, a Jackson County farmer who has been involved with the gala since its inception. This year, because of heavy demand through a new CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) venture, Arps said he and his wife, Cathy might be donating only a few pounds of carrots. If, Arps said, they even have those — it’s been busy this year for the couple.
The Local Food Gala, Arps said, has evolved into an important event in Western North Carolina, and serves as an excellent means of connecting consumers to area farmers. He believes in throwing his support behind it whenever possible.
The night’s menu for the gala is still being decided on, Wiggins said, but it will definitely include a vegetarian and meat options. The meat and fish will both be locally produced, plus there will be sides featuring local vegetables. Dessert most likely will be a blueberry popover, Wiggins said.
Macon Bank and Duke Energy are sponsors of the event.
The Local Food Gala, an annual fundraising event for the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, will be held Saturday, July 30, at the Bloemsma Barn in the Patton Valley area near Franklin.
A limited number of tickets will be sold at the Land Trust’s office in Franklin, or via the group’s website, www.ltlt.org through July 20th. Tickets are $75 each, or $500 for a table of 8.
Recreation, conservation and preservation-minded environmentalists from all over Western North Carolina streamed into the Ferguson Auditorium at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College for a chance to influence federal policy.
“They’re calling it a listening session,” said Abe Nail, 56, of Globe. “I can’t imagine the Bush administration doing anything like that.”
Judi Parker, 63, also of Globe –– which is tucked into the middle of the Pisgah National Forest just south of Blowing Rock –– marveled at the crowd of people swarming around her.
“I’m just glad so many people came,” she said.
Nail and Parker were two of more than 500 people who came to participate in a project inaugurated by President Barack Obama in April. Administration officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Interior –– all of which have a stake in overseeing America’s public lands –– have joined together for a road show to listen to the people their policies impact.
Paul Carlson, executive director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee based in Franklin, said the administration’s willingness to send senior officials to the listening sessions showed it was serious about supporting locally-based conservation efforts.
“Those are pretty senior guys and for them to be out there taking that kind of time to listen to us is pretty impressive,” Carlson said.
The group has toured a dozen cities already to meet with stakeholder groups and talk about how the federal government can do a better job expanding access to outdoor recreation and land conservation in everything from city parks to national forests.
Will Shafroth, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior, is one of a handful of officials who have been to every city so far. Shafroth said the trip has given him a lift during a trying period.
“It’s invigorating because with the dark cloud of the oil spill in the Gulf, which has been a real drag on our sense of what’s happening, you come into a place like this and it’s just full of energy,” Shafroth said.
The strain of the past months showed on Shafroth’s face, and during his opening remarks he managed to forget where he was, thanking the people of “Asheville, Tennessee” for the turnout.
Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy handled the slip graciously and led the audience –– which was made up of a wide range of characters from AmeriCorps volunteers to non-profit executive directors to local politicians –– in a rousing call and response that confirmed the real venue for the event.
The value of the listening session as a policy tool may not yet be determined, but its worth as a morale building exercise was evident from the start.
Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, invoked the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt in his remarks and set the tone for the dialogue later in the day.
“We know now that the solutions are not going to come from Washington, if they ever did,” Strickland said.
The room buzzed as Julie Judkins of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a facilitator in the morning’s youth event, offered some feedback direct from the young people to the big bosses.
“Even though we love Smoky [the Bear], maybe it’s time to get him on the iPhone,” Judkins said.
John Jarvis, head of the National Park Service, offered a succinct summation of the aim of the event in his address.
“We need your ideas so we can spread them around to other parts of the country,” Jarvis said.
The listening sessions have been organized to inform a report that will be on President Barack Obama’s desk by November 15. After the hour-long introductory session that included an eight-minute inspirational video invoking the nation’s relationship with its public lands, the participants headed to breakout sessions in classroom settings to discuss their own experiences.
The sessions were organized to record what strategies were working, what challenges organizations were facing, how the federal government could better facilitate change, and what existing tools could be used to create improvements in the system.
In a breakout session focused on outdoor recreation, participants affiliated with trail clubs, mountain biking groups, paddling groups, tourism offices and scout troops piled into a room.
Mark Singleton, executive director of Sylva-based American Whitewater, participated in the president’s kickoff conference in Washington, D.C., back in April. Two months later he was telling the facilitator that the government had to work to create better and more accessible options for recreation on public land so the younger generation would grow up with a conservation ethic.
“It’s hard to protect something if you don’t love it,” Singleton said. “There can’t be a disconnect with the younger generation.”
Eric Woolridge, the Wautauga County Tourism and Development Authority’s outdoor recreation planner, hailed the new cooperative model in Boone that uses a local tax on overnight lodging to fund outdoor recreation infrastructure projects.
Woolridge oversees an outdoor recreation infrastructure budget of $250,000 derived from proceeds of a 6 percent occupancy tax.
“The key is that we have a revenue stream, and it always stays there,” Woolridge said.
There were specific asks for cooperation from the Feds, too. A woman from North Georgia wanted to know how to get memorandums of understanding with various agencies to help her youth orienteering program.
Don Walton, a board member with the Friends of the Mountain To Sea Trail, asked that the U.S. Park Service to consider allowing more camping opportunities on land owned by the Blue Ridge Parkway.
While each set of stakeholders had their own pet issues, nearly everyone was urging the Feds to ramp up their contribution to the Land And Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenues from off-shore oil leases to benefit outdoor recreation projects across the country.
Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar authorized $38 million for state projects through the fund this year, but the administration has announced its aim to authorize the full funding level of $900 million for the LWCF by 2014.
Woolridge, Singleton and many other outdoor recreation stakeholders also waned to emphasize that their work isn’t just about playing, it’s about economic development.
“Outdoor recreation and conservation is a legitimate development strategy,” Woolridge said. “In fact, it may be the only development strategy for rural communities.”
For Shafroth, who ran a non-profit in Colorado before taking his job at the Department of Interior, the economic challenges of the moment are an ever-present reality.
“With the shortfalls with resources we have right now and the size of people’s goals… in some cases, there’s a pretty big gulf right now,” Shafroth said.
But more than just dollars and cents, the listening tour is an organizing effort, a way to get conservation-minded people in front of their government to start a long-overdue conversation.
Abe Nail said his attendance at the event wasn’t about money.
“You can’t buy conservation. Conservation is passion driven,” Nail said.
By Ken Murphy
Western North Carolina is a special place, a region with awe-inspiring scenic vistas, waterways and forested watersheds that are home to unmatched biodiversity, and rural landscapes and cultural sites that remind us of our heritage on a daily basis. However, the demands of the modern economy have led to the loss of many of our working farms and forests, the disappearance of wild areas, and threats to clean air and water.
Fortunately, our region is blessed with many community-based environmental and conservation organizations, each seeking to protect our land, water, and wildlife. These local organizations (including local offices of national organizations) are uniquely positioned to “make things happen” through decisions of local stakeholders and elected officials so that effective and innovative conservation efforts can succeed.
Because tax and spending policies are increasingly set on the federal level, the framework in which our local organizations act is largely determined on the national stage. Our local organizations — no matter how hard-working and resourceful — cannot continue to be successful if they work in an atmosphere of indifference to the challenges they face. Since federal policymakers act in a remote urban setting, and since future generations cannot vote, the risk of inadequate support for local conservation objectives is high. Thankfully, somebody is now listening.
Last April 16, President Obama established the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, led by the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, the Administrator of the EPA, and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. The Initiative recognized that our country is in many ways losing touch with — and in many cases losing — the places and traditions that have helped make America special. Importantly, the President ordered that the Initiative conduct listening and learning sessions throughout the country, sessions in which the full range of interested groups could speak to the problems and solutions involved with protecting special places. A listening session is scheduled for Asheville on July 15 (see www.doi.gov/americasgreatoutdoors for details).
Given that somebody is listening, we have not only an opportunity, but in some sense a duty, to speak out in order to enhance means of protecting our landscape and sharing our natural treasures with those who are losing touch with them. By speaking of our accomplishments, we can encourage others to replicate and build upon our success. By speaking of our challenges, we can encourage decisions that help lower barriers rather than raise them.
For example, the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee (LTLT), which primarily operates west of the Balsam Mountains, plans to speak of the success we have had in working with local landowners and in combining private contributions and government grants in order to acquire and protect significant portions of Cowee, the richest and most intact cultural landscape in the region we cover. Cowee was the principal commercial and diplomatic center of the Mountain Cherokee in the 18th century. William Bartram, who traveled through the area in 1775, described the setting as “one of the most charming natural mountainous landscapes perhaps any where to be seen.” The, LTLT has made great strides in securing this landscape, and in 2007 succeeded in conserving the Cowee Mound itself in partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and the state of North Carolina.
LTLT has plans for further work in the region, and these plans are not without challenges. For example, through a generous private donation and financing through a local bank, LTLT was recently able to purchase a 108-acre forested tract that includes Hall Mountain, which overlooks the Little Tennessee River and the Cowee Mound. As a result, LTLT has expanded to over 380 acres the network of conserved land surrounding the ancient mound site. LTLT is working with the EBCI and others to seek permanent protection of the Hall Mountain tract under the USDA-Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program.
Establishing the Hall Mountain tract as a community forest would provide tribal members and the surrounding community an opportunity for vocational education in forestry as well as an active demonstration site for quality forest stewardship. The tract could also be managed to provide artisan resources, such as white oak, to the Cherokee basket weavers.
While LTLT will speak to its successes and challenges in land conservation, the listening session in Asheville on July 15 is a rare opportunity to be heard on a number of outdoor-oriented issues. I hope to see you there.
Ken Murphy is vice chair of The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee
North Carolina’s farmland is rapidly disappearing. The state has lost more than a million acres of it since 2007, and only 17 percent of the land in cultivation in 1950 is still farmed. In the mountains, the pressure to develop flat land near water sources accentuates the problem.
“That’s the first place a developer will build,” said John Beckman, pointing at his melon field in bottomland. “I could have subdivided this into one-acre lots and sold them all as waterfront property.”
Beckman and a handful of other property owners along Tilley Creek in Cullowhee are working in conjunction with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee to save their land from development and keep it farmed by using conservation easements and elbow grease. Last Saturday, they opened up their properties to the public to showcase the effort.
Four separate landowners in the Tilley Creek watershed have put more than 200 acres of land into conservation easements and kept close to 20 of those acres bearing food.
“People look to county and state government to conserve land, but there’s another way it can happen,” said Paul Carlson, executive director of LTLT. “There’s starting to be a cumulative conservation story in Tilley Creek.”
Tough row to hoe
Beckman doesn’t have any illusions about why farming has all but disappeared in Western North Carolina.
“Nobody wants to farm. It’s hard work. There’s not hardly any money in it. I still haven’t found anything that makes money,” Beckman said.
A builder and a developer who was raised in upstate New York and has lived in Maine, Colorado, West Virginia and Wyoming, Beckman moved to Jackson County from Raleigh in the mid-1990s to run an organic farm on Betty’s Creek. After selling that property to developers, he intended to take a break from farming, but fate intervened.
The historic Pressley farmstead, a picturesque piece of land that was farmed by Bob Pressley between 1900 and 1960, was in danger of becoming a shooting range. In 2006, Beckman bought the 200-acre property, which is only three miles from the Western Carolina University campus, in a tax foreclosure auction with the intention of preserving it.
“Rather than being smart and taking a break, I got involved in another project right away,” Beckman said.
But Beckman couldn’t afford to pay taxes on the entire property, so he put 135 acres into a conservation easement with LTLT. He has divided the rest into 5 to 10-acre lots centered on a common area that can be farmed. So far he has only sold one of them, to Cindy Anthony, a Pressley descendant who has hopes of restoring the old farmhouse to its original splendor. But Beckman’s broad aim is to create a new model for land conservation and development.
On his own piece of the land, he’s spent the past three years creating an organic farm that produces a wide array of vegetables to sell at farmers markets. The effort to clear his garden plot, which had reverted to a mixed poplar forest, was tremendous.
“The saying is we’re blessed with rock and it’s true,” Beckman said. “You can’t stick a shovel in the ground without hitting rock.”
Beckman hauled out 20 truckloads of rock and used it to build his “Frank Lloyd Lite” house beside the burbling waters of Tilley Creek. But for Beckman, the job of figuring out how to minimize the workload of running a 5-acre farm is part of the challenge. To that end, he was thrilled to welcome interested conservationists for a tour.
“It doesn’t do any good to get other farmers out here,” Beckman said. “That’s the choir. Half of my job is education. Showing people this is possible. Showing people you don’t have to kill yourself.”
Russ Regnery came to the tour having never been to Tilley Creek. Beckman’s farm and the precedent it offers blew the Macon County native away.
“It’s just a fantastic example to set for people,” said Regnery. “You can have a way of life that pays for itself and preserves an agricultural tradition that almost doesn’t exist anymore.”
Beckman estimates that he spends 20 hours per week in his fields during the growing season, but he maintains that people should bite off whatever they feel they can chew.
“What I want to emphasize to people is that farms don’t have to be 100 acres,” Beckman said. “Everybody should have a 10 by 10 plot in their backyard.”
As for the broader picture of farmland conservation, Beckman believes there isn’t a single approach that will do the job. County and state government will have to spend money to preserve what they can, and private landowners will need to work with land conservation groups like LTLT to create a patchwork quilt of farmland in places like Tilley Creek.
“It’s going to take the contributions of a lot of people working a lot of different angles,” Beckman said.
Setting the example
Joan Byrd has lived on Tilley Creek for almost 40 years. She started her life there on a one-acre lot on the ridge above where she lives now. Twenty-six years ago she married her husband, George Rector. Both of them are ceramics instructors at WCU. They purchased land and began farming a pasture alongside Bryson Branch, a picturesque mountain stream off Bo Cove Road.
In order to preserve their peaceful life on the mountain, they continued buying land that was likely to be developed. Five years ago, they put 40 acres into a conservation easement with LTLT.
“We just didn’t want it to be developed,” Byrd said.
While Byrd still focuses her energy on her pottery studio in summer, Rector has embraced the backbreaking work of maintaining a stunning garden of raised beds, grapevines and kiwi pergolas. To look at the perfectly manicured beds is to understand that a garden can be artistic as well as functional, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require hard work.
“There’s a lot of stoop labor involved,” said Rector. “The Italians have a saying that the ground is very low. I remember that a lot at the end of the day.”
While Beckman fights the rocks on his land, Rector has settled into a 30-year war with voles, burrowing rodents that have a taste for vegetables. His potatoes sit in the ground in makeshift containers with hard bottoms and wire mesh sides, and as the season goes forward, he mounds the plants with soil.
The struggle is worth the effort for Rector, who sees producing food as a step towards self-sufficiency that may become critical in the future.
“Cheap food is a luxury right now, but it’s cheap because oil is cheap,” said Rector. “That may not always be the case.”
For Kate Parkerson, outreach coordinator for LTLT, Beckman and Rector are the unsung heroes of the farmland conservation movement because they have succeeded in showing how the land can be saved and used by the people who live on it.
“Some people think that if you put your land in conservation you can’t use it,” Parkerson said. “You can’t use it for development, but you can use it in a way that’s productive and energizing and free and still protects the resource.”
The landowners of Tilley Creek –– Vera and Don Guise own another historic farmstead higher up Tilley Creek with a 48-acre conservation easement, and Kathy Ivey, their neighbor, has 46 acres in conservation –– are preserving a watershed that could easily have been cut up into tiny pieces for second home lots.
“If the people who owned these properties didn’t see the risk and take the steps to get the conservation easements, that might have happened,” Parkerson said.
Through their efforts, they want to show that the value of land is in the way that you use it, not how much you can get for selling it.
LTLT helps to conserve the landscape of the upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee river valleys by protecting private lands from inappropriate development. LTLT does this by working with private landowners to place conservation easements on their property, by accepting gifts of land, and by purchasing at-risk properties. As of September 2009, LTLT had protected 3,564 acres through conservation easements, and another 1,278 acres through acquisition. LTLT also played an important role in the State of North Carolina’s acquisition of the Needmore Tract, a 4,500-acre tract on the banks of the Little Tennessee River. www.ltlt.org.