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Taking it outside: The Balsam Mountain Trust offers nature hikes, outdoor seminars, workshops and research studies in a richly diverse tract of 4,400 acres in Jackson County

By Michael Beadle

At first it sounds like a contradiction — a land developer interested in protecting the environment. Is it possible to balance commercial interests and at the same time protect pristine forests with diverse habitats?

The Balsam Mountain Preserve in Jackson County is taking on that challenge as a model program that will offer both prime real estate for upscale home buyers and educational outreach programs to help with awareness and protection of Southern Appalachian forest wilderness.

The 4,400 acre Balsam Mountain Preserve straddles the south side of the ridge between Waynesville and Sylva with an entrance off U.S. 23-74. The development will include some 350 home lots complete with tennis courts, golf course, swimming pool, hiking and biking trails, and a cozy dining hall. Along with this design is the Balsam Mountain Trust, a non-profit organization set up to manage and protect more than 3,000 acres — about two-thirds of the Balsam Mountain Preserve — under conservation easements.

Charged with a mission of serving the public, the Balsam Mountain Trust has opened itself up as an outdoor laboratory for geology, hydrology, archeology, forestry, botany, wildlife management, birding and conservation. Scientists from around the state and Southeast have been invited to the Preserve, and starting in 2006 the Trust will offer a series of educational outreach programs for elementary schools in the area.

“Everybody sees the gated community as a place where they can’t go, but not here,” says Michael Skinner, director of the Balsam Mountain Trust. “We’re a gated community that opens its doors.”

The Trust is in the process of moving from its cramped temporary headquarters to a three-story, 3,000-square-foot nature center that will house wildlife exhibits, a youth science library, offices, and a meeting room.

Skinner and his assistant, senior naturalist Blair Ogburn, have big plans for the future, including research partnerships with university students and professors, guided tours with hiking groups, and outdoor classes for visiting public school students.

“A lot of our programs will not have a cost,” says Ogburn, “We can tailor it to their needs.”

Ogburn, a native of Western North Carolina with a 10-year background in natural science education and field ecology (including a stint in Costa Rica), is right at home alongside Skinner, an environmental education veteran with a background in wildlife biology, taxidermy, outdoor photography, and a three-year run as host of an outdoors TV show in Georgia.

While they share a love for the outdoors and science, they also have the personality to convey that knowledge in a way that invites both eco-experts and nature novices to explore what the Preserve has to offer. They’ve come up with playful workshop titles like “Got any Botany” and “Take a Peek at My Beak.” Other programs offer a basic overview of ecology, the process of energy transfer and nutrient cycles, aquatic ecology, and “Backbone Buddies x 5,” a study of vertebrates. Workshops may range from 45 minutes to around three hours depending on the time schools can devote to a field trip. The Trust is also willing to customize programs to fit a given school’s needs and can incorporate math lessons, live animals, artifacts, skulls, and insect collections.

The Balsam Mountain Trust sustains itself through private donations along with proceeds from land and home sales in the Balsam Mountain Preserve. The Preserve plans to have about 150 home sites sold by the end of 2005, according to Skinner.

Chaffin/Light Associates, the real estate company that set up the Balsam Mountain Preserve, has built a reputation on creating award-winning, environmentally friendly resort communities throughout the country. It currently manages 10 sites in South Carolina, Colorado, Florida and Washington. Similar nature preserve/private communities have been set up at Spring Island, S.C., and Telluride, Colo.

Adhering to strict environmental standards, the Balsam Mountain Preserve has 14 water quality stations around the property, which are monitored by an independent company. The Preserve does not allow commercial logging, hunting or trash burning on the property and works diligently to prevent sediment from flowing into streams.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Skinner says.

It’s no secret the Southern Appalachians are home to one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, so the Balsam Mountain Trust regularly invites scientists to study this protected property. The Champion International Paper Company owned the land for a better part of the last century, and when the company sold the property, it seemed like only a matter of time before the mountainous forest ridge would be torn up with housing developments. However, since the bulk of the land is now under conservation easements, it’s protected from such development.

One of the first goals of the Balsam Mountain Trust has been to document all the different species of flora and fauna on the property. Various university scientists have also completed water, soil and rock studies. According to initial reports, there are more than 700 species of vascular plants (plants, shrubs, trees, etc.) in the Preserve.

So far, the Preserve has welcomed dozens of researchers and field scientists from more than six states. Researchers from Clemson, Duke, North Carolina State and Western Carolina universities have come to study everything from sustainable forestry to aquatic insects. The University of North Carolina at Asheville recently endowed a research scholarship for natural resource management and environmental studies with the Balsam Mountain Preserve in mind as a nearby outdoor laboratory.

Dan Pattillo, a retired Western Carolina University biology professor, has helped identify and record hundreds of plant species on the Preserve by methodically cataloging 50-meter by 20-meter plots of land. By keeping a record of everything that’s living on the Trust, Pattillo says scientists will be able to study what happens to these species over time. One of the plants he’s identified is the starflower, an ancient species that survived the Ice Age.

“All these records are being kept electronically and [on] hard copy,” Pattillo said.

The Trust will also be working to maintain a healthy mix of native species while curbing the spread of non-native invasive species, according to Pattillo. That means working with landowners to make sure they don’t plant foreign, potentially destructive species that could spread like kudzu from their yards into the protected Balsam Mountain Trust land.

Keeping that delicate balance between commercial and environmental interests will also become an issue if and when populations of protected wild animals like bear, deer, and foxes increase. The Balsam Mountain Trust property is home to a wide variety of animals including one of the smallest mammals in the world — the pigmy shrew.

The oldest rocks on the Preserve are estimated to be between 570 and 900 million years old, according to geological studies from Western Carolina University and the University of South Florida. In addition, two key archeological sites are on the Preserve: Ruby City, an old gem mining community, as well as a 10,000-year-old Native American site that predates the Cherokee and has yielded some artifacts.

For Skinner, the beauty of his job is that he can continue to be a student, learning all sorts of fascinating information from a constant influx of scientists and experts who come for workshops, natural resource management meetings and research studies.

And with the recent spike in gas prices limiting school field trips, Skinner sees more opportunities of going out into the schools for hands-on activities and workshops.

“ We’ve got our work cut out for us,” says Skinner. “We just want to do it well.”

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