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.