The doors opened, and the room filled — with hikers, bikers, ecologists, conservation workers, economic development professionals and Cherokee tribal members alike who were intent on making their voices heard during a public form Thursday, Jan. 25, which took input on plans that will impact the future of Waterrock Knob and the Plott Balsams.
Born in the upstairs of the Post Office building his mom ran in Crabtree, Robert Williams, now 87, has always called Haywood County home.
His dad was in the cattle business, and when the family moved to Canton during Williams’ childhood, chores such as feeding cattle, splitting wood and tending the fire kept Williams busy. But his grandfather William Silver’s 1,800-acre tract in the Plott Balsams, while also technically a workplace, provided a respite from the busyness of day-to-day life. Silver and his son — Williams’ uncle — ranged cattle up there, and in the summers Williams would join them.
High in the Plott Balsams, there’s a swath of property riddled with panoramic views, sparking waterfalls and high-elevation solitude that was once destined for development. But more than a decade after purchasing it, America’s Homeplace has yet to build a single structure — and now the homebuilding company is offering the 912 acres at a reduced rate for long-term conservation.
“It’s a beautiful piece of property, kind of a one-of-a-kind piece,” said Stacy Buchanan, regional president for the company and a Jackson County native. “There’s not many pieces this large left in the Southern Appalachians.”
It’s not unusual for Waterrock Knob, which boasts some of the best views on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to see its parking lot test the limits as summer reaches its zenith. More people visit the Parkway than any of the 412 units in the National Park Service, and it’s hard to resist Waterrock’s high-elevation coolness and sweeping vistas when mid-year heat grips the valleys below.
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.
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.
Lots of folks like to study those molded relief maps of the region, the ones that show the upraised contours of the mountain ranges. Some have even pieced together the maps for the Southern Blue Ridge Province from Southwestern Virginia to North Georgia as wall hangings, making it possible to contemplate in miniature the glorious terrain we call home.
It’s pleasurable to sit in an easy chair on a rainy day and ponder the way the ridges join or meditate over how they might have looked before eons of erosion wore them down into their present configuration. Even more rewarding is a venture to a local vista for a panoramic look-see at the real thing.
In one sense, of course, high vistas are places that enable us to rise above our everyday humdrum existence and take in grand scenery, even when we don’t know exactly what we’re looking at. As one writer aptly phrased it, “There’s wonder and delight up there ... elbow room for the soul ... all you have to do is suspend judgment and analysis long enough simply to be there, on the mountain, experiencing it.”
Well, no one would want to fail to take in the beauty or be exhilarated, but we also shouldn’t forget that Blue Ridge vistas are windows that allow us to see and comprehend more truly. A little “analysis” from time to time won’t hurt.
On a clear day, you can observe the bare bones of the land and come to a fuller understanding of the exact lay of the land. The thoughtful choice of a series of strategic vistas in your particular section of the Blue Ridge will enable you to observe just where the major ranges abut and how the peaks, spurs, gaps, upland valleys, streams, rock cliffs, gorges, grassy balds and other topographical features fall into place. You will come away with a more precise notion of your place in the world.
Because we’ve lived in the Tuckasegee River valley on the southern edge of the Smokies for the last 40 or so years, my wife and I have concentrated our attention on the interior portion of the Southern Blue Ridge Province from the Great Smokies on the west and north, to the Nantahalas in the south, and the Balsams in the east. One of our greatest satisfactions while driving or walking is being able to look up and recognize specific peaks and ranges by name, to know how they interconnect and relate to the remote cove we live in. They have become old friends. Each new lookout visited, each new mountain range recognized by its distinctive shape adds acreage to our spiritual landscape.
Among our favorite vistas are Wayah Bald (5,342 feet) in the Nantahalas, Waterrock Knob (6,292 feet) in the Plott Balsams along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Clingman’s Dome (6,643 feet) on the high divide of the Smokies along the N.C.-Tenn. state lines. All three can be reached directly by vehicle within a single day. When it’s clear, one can easily see the 30 or so miles from each of these vantage points to the other two corners in what is a vast triangle. This triangulation technique allows an observer to view a given terrain from various directions and fit together landscape in an efficient manner.
Waterrock Knob is a fun place to visit because it attracts such a mix of visitors: drive-by tourists looking for the next overlook; thoughtful tourists savoring a special spot; plant enthusiasts seeking out species restricted to the northern hardwood and spruce-fir forests (yellow birch, spreading wood fern, mountain ash, etc.); birders looking for high-elevation species (ravens, golden-crowned kinglets, winter wrens, etc.); frisbee-catching college students; sunset and sunrise watchers; hikers, walkers, and strollers; and so on. I like remote, difficult-to-access spots, but I also like places where a diverse gathering of people are having fun. I like to watch them go about their chosen activities.
Just last week, I found out about the upcoming “Blue Ridge Parkway: Celebrating Heritage and Communities” event that will take place this coming Saturday at Waterrock Knob. Nevertheless, I wanted to support the event if possible. So I contacted BRP ranger Pam Mann and offered to do a nature walk and talk of about 45 minutes duration starting at 3 p.m. I’ll talk some about the geologic-geographic setting. I’ll have with me a handout for the field guides I use for general natural history as well as for trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, grasses and wildflowers in Western North Carolina. (And I’ll also bring copies of the actual books and source materials). Then we’ll go walking (slowly) and see what we may see. I hope that you will join me in support of one of our great national treasures.