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A mile-high view: State-level squabble stalls Jackson County conservation project

Jordan Smith, of Mainspring Conservation Trust, looks out from the 5,462-foot view atop a Jackson County property slated for conservation. Holly Kays photo Jordan Smith, of Mainspring Conservation Trust, looks out from the 5,462-foot view atop a Jackson County property slated for conservation. Holly Kays photo

To call the view stretching out below the 5,462-foot bald “spectacular,” “impressive” or even “jaw-dropping” would be an understatement. 

It was as clear a day as had been spotted in the mountains this rainy year, skies blue and cloudless ahead of the slowly moving remains of Hurricane Florence. The sun shone on Cherokee to the west, Bryson City visible just a couple folds of land beyond it and the Nantahala Mountains rimming the horizon south and west of the small towns. 

In front of me, but so, so far below, Skyland Drive undulated on its way into Sylva, where smoke from Jackson Paper puffed gently into the air and the mountains bordering Catamount Peak barely hid Cullowhee and Western Carolina University. Sylva’s Pinnacle Park covered mountainsides immediately to the east, Waterrock Knob rising up just beyond that and the Blue Ridge Parkway hugging the Plott Balsams between Cherokee and Maggie Valley, which was invisible behind the mile-high mountain range. 

“It is spectacular,” said Jordan Smith, land conservation manager for Mainspring Conservation Trust. “You feel like you’re cheating when you get to the top of it.”

Most of the time, having a dramatic view like that all to yourself — especially on a picture-perfect, sunny-and-70-day — would require a multi-mile hike from the edge of nowhere into its very middle. But Smith and I had reached it without hiking at all. 

The peak is part of an undeveloped 912-acre property that’s owned by developer America’s Home Place but could soon make its way into permanent conservation. Back before the recession, when the company was still planning to build high-end homes on the rugged mountain land, it had a 3.1-mile road built connecting the gravel street that branches off of Wolfetown Road in Cherokee to the top of the mountain. Now, that road offers a partial tour of the otherwise mostly unblemished acreage that a group of governmental and nonprofit groups are working to place in public ownership. 

 

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Tour to the top 

The route begins as a solid and not-too-steep gravel road sporting a strip of green growing between the tire ruts and brush encroaching on either side. However, the grade quickly increases, evidence of recent rains appearing in the form of ruts through the tread, causing the Jeep to bounce from side to side as overhanging stems of bushes and brambles reach in through the open windows. 

While the lower portion follows routes first created by old logging roads built before America’s Home Place came on the scene, higher up road cuts blasted in the mountainside reveal the expense involved in building even a road on land this rugged. The value of the access is somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million, Smith said. 

Near the place where the blasting began, a small waterfall flows down into a creek just beside the road — or at least it seems small at first. We stop, look up, and see that the cascade begins far uphill of the road, maybe 100 feet high or so, spilling down, down, down until it creates the final rivulets visible by casual observation from behind the steering wheel. 

From there, the road hugs the rocky mountainside before the landscape opens up once again to host a flurry of goldenrod and asters, butterflies and bees flying around to claim the nectar before the meadow gives way to brushy fields of blackberry brambles and just-past angelica shaded by birch, maples and buckeyes. 

Then, the view. Conserving the property will protect the two highest remaining privately owned properties in the Plott Balsams, said The Conservation Fund’s North Carolina director Bill Holman. 

“It’s not just some obscure view,” Smith added. “This is going to be a big part of the viewshed from the (Blue Ridge) Parkway.”

The Parkway is plenty visible from the top, the road winding around to Waterrock Knob and then disappearing for a time before reappearing along the mountainside to the north. Conserving the land will keep the view wild for the millions of Parkway visitors who drive the route each year. Adjoining Pinnacle Park, a 5,000-plus-acre block of conserved land slated for addition to the Parkway, and land owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the property would fit right into the larger landscape of conservation. 

It’s not just about aesthetics. The high-elevation property plays host to a variety of animals and habitat types that are rare in this part of the world, and in some cases rare in any part of it at all — pygmy salamanders, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, brown creepers, northern hardwood forests, rich montane seeps, spray cliffs, red spruce-fir forest. 

It also contains the headwaters of some important water sources for the region, Blackrock Creek and Shut-in Creek. Blackrock and Shut-in creeks both flow into Soco Creek, which feeds the Oconaluftee River, which in turn supplies Cherokee with water. 

“Then just the sheer size of the tract,” said Smith. “There’s not that many 900-plus-acre tracts left in our part of the world that are private land.”

 

Hold-up in Raleigh 

I originally scheduled this tour of the property to fall in the same week as the Clean Water Management Trust Fund Board meeting to select grant award recipients for 2018. The meeting was slated to occur Sept. 11-12 in Raleigh, with conservation of the America’s Home Place land largely dependent on whether the board would grant a pair of funding requests totaling $1.5 million. 

The Conservation Fund is working to conserve 441.5 acres of it, which includes Blackrock Creek and the view at the top of the road, while Mainspring Conservation Trust is taking the lead on the remaining 471 acres, which includes the headwaters of Shut-In Creek. The Conservation Fund is seeking $1 million in Clean Water funding, and Mainspring is looking for $500,000. 

However, a legal tug-of-war between the state’s legislative and executive branches prompted the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to cancel its September meeting, postponing grant award decisions indefinitely. 

That could spell trouble for the America’s Home Place conservation projects, and for other conservation projects across the state. 

“The Conservation Fund is under contract with America’s Home Place to acquire the property in January of next year, and we agreed on that closing date based upon when we thought Clean Water would make decisions, and more importantly when funds would actually be available for closing,” Holman said of the Blackrock Creek property. “And landowners, a lot of them, they made their financial plans, they entered into agreements with land trusts and local governments, and uncertainty is bad.”

The delay stems from a legal scuffle between the N.C. General Assembly and the administration of Gov. Roy Cooper, who argued that the way appointments are made to certain state boards — including Clean Water — is unconstitutional. The executive branch is supposed to be over day-to-day administration of state programs, but the nine-member Clean Water Management Trust Fund Board contains six legislative appointments and only three governor’s appointments. 

In an Aug. 31 ruling, a three-judge panel on the N.C. Superior Court agreed with Cooper.

“The separation of powers clause plainly and clearly does not allow the General Assembly to take this much control over the execution of the laws from the Governor and lodge it within itself,” the ruling reads. 

This presented a problem for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which was at that point less than two weeks away from its scheduled meeting to determine grant awards. With a total pot of about $20 million, the board had received $50 million in requests. The constitutionality of their appointment in question, though, members didn’t deem it wise to meet and vote on grant awards only to have those decisions challenged later. 

 

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Cascading water creates a rare spray cliffs habitat when falling water flecks the rocks. Holly Kays photo

 

Thus far, however, nobody knows when exactly the board will be able to make those decisions. Walter Clark, executive director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, said that the board hopes to meet before November but can’t say for sure if that will be possible. 

“When there’s a holdup in funding, it can be problematic to some of our clients in the land trust community,” acknowledged Clark, who himself comes from a land trust background. “So everybody is aware of that and wants to find a way to move forward as soon as we can.”

Finding a permanent solution to the issue will require the legislature and the governor to work together to amend the statute forming the Clean Water Management Trust Fund Board, which could prove a lengthy process. However, Clark hopes the government will find some sort of intermediate solution that would allow the board to act on this fall’s grant applications while a permanent structure is determined. 

“What no one wants to see is a prolonged waiting period for funding allocations, so the best I can say is that there’s conversations ongoing between all the parties to make that happen, to have that meeting as soon as we can,” Clark said. 

Even if the grant awards had been announced last week, as planned, Holman wasn’t expecting the funds to be available until early 2019  — thus the planned January 2019 closing with America’s Home Place.

Mainspring Conservation Trust is working with a slightly longer timeline, aiming for a 2020 closing on the 471 acres it’s working to conserve on the Shut-in Creek portion. Mainspring is planning to pay $2 million for the property, with half a million in private donations from Fred and Alice Stanback, half a million in grant funding from Clean Water — hopefully — and the remaining $1 million from a local conservation partner. Mainspring is in talks with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians about the potential of the tribe helping to find the conservation project, as the tract adjoins tribal land and could potentially be transferred into tribal ownership once conservation is complete. 

“The tribe has had a good working relationship with Mainspring Conservation Trust on a variety of projects through the years,” said the tribe in an official statement. “Tribal leadership is aware of the Shut-In Creek property opportunity and is supportive of further exploration.”

If the Clean Water grant is awarded, The Conservation Fund will pay $2.2 million for the 441.5-acre Blackrock Creek portion, including $1 million from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, $250,000 apiece from Jackson County and Sylva and private donations. The property would eventually be transferred into Town of Sylva ownership as an extension of the existing 1,088-acre Pinnacle Park. 

This isn’t the first time that project has faced a tight deadline. Before applying for the Clean Water grant, The Conservation Fund needed funding commitments from Sylva and Jackson County to strengthen the likelihood its request would be funded, with a June 1 deadline to send in its grant application. Jackson County Commissioners initially waivered on whether to commit the funding but ultimately voted to support the project during a special-called meeting and public hearing May 31 — just in time for the June 1 deadline. 

From Franklin to Raleigh, the conservation project’s many partners are hoping for a swift resolution to the state-level squabble and the successful completion of a project that’s been years in the making — and, if achieved, will continue its impact for centuries to come. 

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