“For the better part of the last century nobody hiked it legally because it was an active watershed,” said Bill Gibson, a member of the Pinnacle Park Foundation and director of the Southwestern Commission.
But eventually, the watershed wasn’t adequate to serve the growing water needs of Sylva. In the early 1990s, Sylva abandoned the watershed as a drinking water source in exchange for the Tuckasegee River. Although town had no immediate use for the watershed, they saw the value in hanging on to it as a place for outdoor recreation and escape.
Gibson helped the town adopt policies for the watershed.
“They said ‘we want this kept like it is. Let’s leave it alone and give us time to think about it,” Gibson recounted. They town took down the ‘no trespassing’ signs to allow hiking and camping, but other than that, have done very little to it. But the watershed was vulnerable to the whims of a future board who might decide to log it or sell it.
“A new board could flip that upside down by just one meeting,” Gibson said.
In the mid-1990s, a group of residents formed the Pinnacle Park Foundation to encourage the protection of the watershed. That has led to the current conservation agreement with the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
Sylva Mayor Brenda Oliver has been working toward a conservation easement for 10 years.
“I am so excited. It is such a win-win situation,” Oliver said. “We are saving the land our forefathers bought so many years ago for the water supply and preserving it for the future. I am so grateful to all the parties that have made that happen.”
The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee served as a liaison between the state and the town to secure the conservation agreement. The land trust will also monitor the watershed on an annual basis to make sure it is being protected properly.
“We are very gratified to be able to partner with the town of Sylva in conserving this magnificent piece of property,” said Paul Carson, director of the Land Trust of the Little Tennessee. “The crest of the Balsams now have a contiguous protected corridor all the way to Waterrock Knob on the Parkway.”