The recent acquisition of 720 acres of land in the Plott Balsams has helped set the table for the first major park to be created along the Blue Ridge Parkway in six decades.

The land, owned by former Congressman Charles Taylor, was recently taken over by the national group The Conservation Fund. That same group has a two-year option for 2,226 more acres but will need to raise some $5.7 million to make the purchase.

The pieces of property help make up Maggie Valley’s watershed. Neil Carpenter, head of the sanitary district for the town, said the recent purchase was a relief. He’s worked at preserving the land from development for the past eight years.

“Development was a possibility,” Carpenter said. “The economy slowing down bought us some time. If the economy had kept booming, I think it would have sold for development. We’re ecstatic it’s protected now.”

The town pulls its water from Campbell Creek. There are 10,000 users on Maggie Valley’s water system, Carpenter said.

The property is extremely rugged but could still have been developed, Carpenter said. Under Haywood County regulations, one house could have been built per each half acre available.

“That was a big threat,” Carpenter said, adding that development could have required the town to engage in “difficult and costly water treatment” down the road.

“And once that quality of a stream is compromised, you virtually never get back to that original quality,” he added.

The land, which connects to 2,415 acres adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway that have already been purchased, run along the 6,000-foot high crest of the Plott Balsams near Sylva and Waynesville. They lie to the west and east of the 6,200-foot high Waterrock Knob, a major scenic destination on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“The goal is to take all these conserved lands and make a park out of them,” Carpenter said. “And to make a wildlife corridor.”

The towering Plott Balsams are ecologically significant. Elk from Cataloochee have shown up there, plus the land is home to the Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel and populations of native brook trout.

 

What the future holds

In the 1950s, three other parks were established along the Blue Ridge Parkway: the 3,512-acre Moses Cone Park near Blowing Rock, the 4,264-acre Julian Price Park that is adjacent to the Moses Cone Park, and the 1,141-acre Linville Falls Park.

Each of these parks was created via financial gifts from individual families. And, the mold appears unbroken in this case, too — the property being acquired today along the parkway has, so far, been paid for with money from Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury, who have been important philanthropists in the environmental arena for years. Federal funding is being sought to help pay for the remaining available parcels. Meetings already have taken place with U.S. Sen. Richard Burr about the possibility for federal funding efforts.

Phil Francis, superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said the recent acquisition is key to helping protect the views for visitors.

“I think that’s a very important piece for the protection of our viewsheds,” Francis said, pointing out that this is in line with Haywood County’s proactive stance in this area.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and Maggie Valley Lodging Association recently earmarked $19,500 to clear a portion of the county’s 73 vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The money was used to hire three workers, or fallers, in February to begin scaling back the overgrown trees.

“This will further help protect these views,” Francis said, adding that the Plott Balsams holds “a rich array of resources.”

Francis said a future park along the Blue Ridge Parkway is not inconceivable and that it is within the agency’s scope to manage such an entity if formed. The 469-mile parkway currently has 15 different recreation areas.

“If all the arrangements can be worked out, we could manage a park,” Francis said. “That’s always a big ‘if’ however.”

Francis, who has been involved in the meetings about securing the remaining tracts of land, said he’s been impressed by the commitment of the parties involved to protect the Plott Balsams.

The Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy has partnered with The Conservation Fund to purchase 8,000 acres in southern Transylvania County from former congressman Charles Taylor and family.

Keiran Roe, executive director of the CMLC, described the tract as the largest privately owned piece of wilderness in Western North Carolina, and said he hoped for a closing before the end of 2010.

The Conservation Fund will initially hold the title on the property and will remain the owner until the property is paid off. However, according to CMLC’s website, The Conservation Trust cannot make the down payment unless the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission commits to managing the tract and eventually taking title.

Roe said the $33 million asking price was a real deal.

See also: Headwaters tract deal hinges on Wildlife Commission

UPDATE: Wildlife Commission Pledges Support for East Fork Headwaters

“We’ve had two appraisals in the past year and one came in at $55 million and one was $66 million, he said. Mr. Taylor has been extremely cooperative and has worked with us to make this deal happen.” The conservation groups have raised $3 million as a down payment, according to Roe, and Taylor has agreed to finance the rest and has given the groups five years to pay off the remaining $30 million.

Roe said Wildlife Commission was the most logical choice to manage the tract because of its history of multiple use.

“It’s our hope to see the land remain open to the public,” said Roe.

 

Taylor’s perspective

It’s no secret that during his 16 years in Congress, Taylor often found himself at odds with national and local environmental groups. He made the League of Conservation Voters’ infamous “Dirty Dozen” list while recording a lifetime score of 5 percent from the group. But Taylor maintained during his long political career and now that he has always been a conservationist.

“There’s been no change in my philosophy,” Taylor said. The cattle farmer and timber manager said he has always been an advocate of multiple use and sound scientific silviculture. He said that most environmental groups were political in nature and that he fought against the idea of taking personal property rights for what he called environmental worship.

Roe said the fact that the Headwaters tract has the state’s highest water quality rating – Outstanding Resource Waters – points to good stewardship.

“It is rare for a privately owned parcel to have such outstanding water quality. It’s truly a tribute to the management of this tract,” Roe said.

Taylor said the water made the Headwaters tract unique. The East Fork flows into the French Broad River, which serves as a back-up drinking water source for the Asheville Regional Water Authority. The importance of the French Broad as a potable water source will only increase as the population of the region grows.

Taylor also noted the impending reinstatement of the estate tax as pause for concern.

“It can be a real dilemma for people who own large amounts of property,” he said. The former congressman said his three sons — Owen, Bryan and Charles Robert — grew up fishing, hiking and roaming the tract. They, ultimately, had the most to say regarding the sale, according to Taylor.

“We grew up hiking to these magnificent waterfalls and fishing in these beautiful trout streams,” Owen Taylor told the Transylvania Times. “By working with the conservation groups, we hope that our children and future generations will continue to have access to the land while opening it up to wider public enjoyment and protecting its water supplies for long-term community benefit.”

According to Roe, there are other tax incentives that landowners such as Taylor are eligible for when they sell their property to a conservancy. There are conservation tax credits, and often the difference between the sale price ($33 million in this case) and the appraised value is seen as a charitable donation.

 

The property

The southern boundary of the property abuts tens of thousands of acres of publicly owned lands in South Carolin, including an eight-mile common boundary with the Greenville, S.C., watershed. On the North Carolina side, the parcel fits like a jigsaw puzzle between DuPont State Forest and Gorges State Park, creating much needed wildlife corridors.

There are more than 25 waterfalls on the property and more than 50 miles of high quality trout streams that provide habitat for endangered and/or threatened species such as the Appalachian brook trout, green salamander and hellbender (a large aquatic salamander). The tract is also home to the federally endangered rock gnome lichen.

This volume of high quality water is seen as a significant resource for Buncombe and Henderson counties as the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson counties have built a water intake and treatment facility at the confluence of the Mills and French Broad Rivers.

The tract also contains nine miles of the Foothills Trail, a 107-mile trail network primarily in South Carolina that connects Caesar’s Head State Park in South Carolina with the Gorges State Park in North Carolina. The trail is maintained by the Foothills Trail Conference on a year-to-year lease. Public ownership of the Headwaters tract would guarantee that the trail system would remain intact. Public ownership would also guarantee that Sassafras Mountain, the highest peak in South Carolina, would remain intact.

Opening the tract to the public could also provide significant economic benefits to the region. The Wildlife Commission estimates that hatchery supported waters such as those in the East Fork tract contribute as much as $72.7 million annually to the state’s economy. A 2008 Wildlife Commission study estimated that fish and wildlife-related recreation generated $4.3 billion in state income in 2006.

And there may be more treasures to find. The Blue Ridge escarpment is noted for its biodiversity. This transition stage between the piedmont and mountains contains a myriad of microhabitats including spray cliffs and Southern Appalachian bogs.

An 8,000 acre tract in Transylvania County, the largest block of privately owned wilderness in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains, may soon be protected if enough funds can be raised.

The landowner, former Congressman Charles Taylor who is also a logger and cattle rancher, has agreed to sell the land for $33 million to the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and The Conservation Fund. The selling price is a good deal at less than half the appraised value, but will still require substantial fundraising to make the conservation a reality.

“This is the last opportunity we will have to acquire such a sizable and significant tract in the southern Appalachians for conservation ownership ever again,” said Dick Ludington, southeast regional director of TCF.

The nonprofit land trusts hopes to raise the money to protect the tract, and then transfer the land to a public entity that would allow for public recreation including hunting, fishing, hiking and other uses.

“The Taylor family has offered the opportunity to add another jewel to the crown of conserved land in western North Carolina,” said Kieran Roe, executive director of CMLC.

The tract was owned by Taylor through his corporate entity, Champion Cattle and Tree Farms.

The acquisition project will open up over 50 miles of streams teeming with trout. The tract is home to rare plant communities, including pockets of Southern Appalachian bog, and lies atop the Blue Ridge escarpment, one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in world.

Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury, philanthropists that champion land conservation in the mountains, have expressed an interest in donating a portion of the necessary funding.

828.697.5777, ext. 201 or www.carolinamountain.org.

After months of keeping his fellow Western North Carolina Republicans guessing, former U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC) has decided not to run for the seat he lost to Democratic rookie Heath Shuler in the 2006 elections.

Taylor made the announcement to 1,000 guests at his annual holiday dinner at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, where presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was the featured speaker.

Taylor’s reluctance to announce his decision in the last months sparked frustration among his party and prompted the Henderson County Republican Men’s Club to ask Taylor to make up his mind. Efforts at pushing Taylor toward a decision failed, and an anticipated Labor Day announcement never materialized.

Three other Republicans have already announced their intentions to seek their party’s nomination to run against Shuler in 2008: Macon County attorney John Armor, Asheville City Councilman Carl Mumpower, and former Henderson County GOP Chair Spence Campbell.

Profiles of those candidates are available online in the Smoky Mountain News archives here.

— By Julia Merchant

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Last week, John Armor, a Highlands attorney, became the third candidate to declare his bid for the 11th District Congressional seat.

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Spence Campbell, chair of the Henderson County Republican Club, declared his intentions two weeks ago to run for the 11th Congressional District seat against Rep. Heath Shuler.

By Michael Beadle

It’s a chilly fall morning in downtown Bryson City, and U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor steps up into a fire truck to pose for pictures.

The road ends here

If Congressman Charles Taylor is defeated in two weeks, it could spell the end of plans to build a road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Bryson City.

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series on campaign issues in the 11th District Congressional race between Republican Congressman Charles Taylor and Democratic challenger Health Shuler.

Voters looking to the topic of immigration reform to help decide who to vote for in the Nov. 7 race for the 11th District congressional seat will be hard pressed to find any philosophical differences between the two candidates.

By Michael Beadle

Editor’s note: From today until the election on Nov. 7, The Smoky Mountain News will run a series of articles on issues we have asked Rep. Charles Taylor and challenger Heath Shuler to address.

As U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor battles former football star Health Shuler for a seat in Congress, will discontent over the war in Iraq prove to be a key issue in determining the outcome of the election? Will Taylor’s seniority in Washington trump his critics?

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