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Land trusts protect western North Carolina acres

ASHEVILLE – These 31,000 acres are no piles of rocks and dirt.

Instead, they include a century-old working apple orchard with access to a trail dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Open balds of the Highlands of Roan are a part of the collection of properties, too. The tract’s 2,273 acres offer sweeping views of North Carolina and Tennessee. A section of the Appalachian Trail crosses the land.

Ten western North Carolina land trusts that make up the Blue Ridge Forever coalition have spent five years stringing together 280 conservation deals to keep development off those 31,000 acres, land worth at least $25 million.

Blue Ridge Forever formed in 2005 in light of the rapid development happening across the mountains, said Jess Laggis, director of the Blue Ridge Forever collaboration. The land conservation organizations formed a five-year plan to pool resources, skills and knowledge to protect land from development through conservation easements and land purchases.

A conservation easement is a voluntary contract between a land owner and an organization that forever extinguishes development rights, Laggis said. The holder of the easement is charged with monitoring the land and enforcing the terms of the easement.

The land purchases – funded through land donations and public and private financing – will give the region an economic boost, said Leah Greden Mathews, Interdisciplinary Distinguished Professor of the Mountain South and an economics professor at UNC Asheville.

A National Park Service report shows that in 2014, 14 million visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway spent $8.6 million in nearby communities. That spending supported 14,000 jobs and had a cumulative economic benefit of more than $1.1 billion.

The Conservation Trust for North Carolina has worked extensively to save land in the view shed of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

That includes the 125-acre Orchard at Altapass near Spruce Pine, a working apple orchard that includes a portion of the Overmountain Victory Trail from the Revolutionary War.

Protected land in turn protects water quality, Laggis said.

“When rain falls on land, it seeps into the groundwater and flows into streams and rivers. Somewhere along the way, this rain was held in a well or reservoir before being piped to the faucet,” Laggis said. “Stable, vegetation-filled stream banks shade and filter water, keeping it cool and clean. Streams with banks stripped of vegetation, trampled by livestock, or otherwise polluted yield hot, contaminated, and unhealthy water.”

One inch of rainfall on 1 square foot of surface equates to about 1 gallon of water. The more than 30,000 acres protected by WNC land trusts in the last five years harvest more than 814 million gallons of water in every inch of rainfall.

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, an Asheville-based land trust and one of the founding partners of Blue Ridge Forever, has protected almost 800 miles of stream corridor over its 42-year conservation history in the mountains of WNC and East Tennessee.

“Protection of land and water resources is critical for quality of life in all our communities,” conservancy Executive Director Carl Silverstein said.

During the past five years the Asheville-based conservancy has protected nearly 9,000 acres in WNC, said Michelle Pugliese, the organization’s land protection director.

One of the most significant was adding 2,273 acres in the Highlands of Roan area of Avery County to the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area, including the protection of the stunning 600-acre Grassy Ridge property.

The last of the 40-years-in-the-making conservation deal was completed with 600 acres bought in December 2012. The conservancy owns 40 acres of the land, with the rest belonging to the state.

When Bob and Barbara Strickland moved from Florida to Western North Carolina in 1992, they were in heaven. The couple – Babs is now a corporate attorney and Bob a retired aerospace engineer – bought a 95-acre apple orchard in Polk County next door to a vast forest owned by International Paper Co.

But in 1997 tragedy struck and changed the trajectory of their lives. Their daughter, Anne Elizabeth Suratt, a pilot, was killed in a plane crash at the age of 22.

The Stricklands made a “huge decision” in 2005 to buy 2,000 acres from International Paper, and by 2013 had completed the transactions, placing 1,521 acres under conservation easement with the help of the Pacolet Area Conservancy, a Polk County land trust formed in 1989.

The Stricklands created a working educational forest as a memorial to their daughter, calling it Walnut Creek Preserve. Babs Strickland said the land is worth “in the millions,” and could have been worth more if sold to a developer.

“We did it to honor Anne. We weren’t doing it to make money,” Babs Strickland said.

“They bought the whole property with the intention of managing this preserve as an educational forest. It was a way of putting all their energy into something fantastic in their daughter’s memory,” said Pam Torlina, director of stewardship and land protection for Tryon-based Pacolet Area Conservancy.

Once a month, the Tryon conservancy holds nature programs or hikes at Walnut Creek Preserve, open to the public at no charge.

The Walnut Creek project is one of 280 new Blue Ridge Forever conservation projects in the past five years.

Laggis said the funding for land conservation has always been a challenge for all of the land trusts. The groups rely heavily on donations from private landowners and public funding such as that from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and N.C. Clean Water Management.

“I feel like in the past five years, public funding has become even more challenging. The Blue Ridge Forever Coalition, we share our expertise and knowledge in any way we can so we’re all working together to achieve a common goal,” Laggis said. “Once or twice a year we all get together to share whatever issues are relevant to the whole group. I think it’s a great model.”

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