The Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy has partnered with The Conservation Fund to purchase 8,000 acres in southern Transylvania County from former congressman Charles Taylor and family.
Keiran Roe, executive director of the CMLC, described the tract as the largest privately owned piece of wilderness in Western North Carolina, and said he hoped for a closing before the end of 2010.
The Conservation Fund will initially hold the title on the property and will remain the owner until the property is paid off. However, according to CMLC’s website, The Conservation Trust cannot make the down payment unless the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission commits to managing the tract and eventually taking title.
Roe said the $33 million asking price was a real deal.
“We’ve had two appraisals in the past year and one came in at $55 million and one was $66 million, he said. Mr. Taylor has been extremely cooperative and has worked with us to make this deal happen.” The conservation groups have raised $3 million as a down payment, according to Roe, and Taylor has agreed to finance the rest and has given the groups five years to pay off the remaining $30 million.
Roe said Wildlife Commission was the most logical choice to manage the tract because of its history of multiple use.
“It’s our hope to see the land remain open to the public,” said Roe.
It’s no secret that during his 16 years in Congress, Taylor often found himself at odds with national and local environmental groups. He made the League of Conservation Voters’ infamous “Dirty Dozen” list while recording a lifetime score of 5 percent from the group. But Taylor maintained during his long political career and now that he has always been a conservationist.
“There’s been no change in my philosophy,” Taylor said. The cattle farmer and timber manager said he has always been an advocate of multiple use and sound scientific silviculture. He said that most environmental groups were political in nature and that he fought against the idea of taking personal property rights for what he called environmental worship.
Roe said the fact that the Headwaters tract has the state’s highest water quality rating – Outstanding Resource Waters – points to good stewardship.
“It is rare for a privately owned parcel to have such outstanding water quality. It’s truly a tribute to the management of this tract,” Roe said.
Taylor said the water made the Headwaters tract unique. The East Fork flows into the French Broad River, which serves as a back-up drinking water source for the Asheville Regional Water Authority. The importance of the French Broad as a potable water source will only increase as the population of the region grows.
Taylor also noted the impending reinstatement of the estate tax as pause for concern.
“It can be a real dilemma for people who own large amounts of property,” he said. The former congressman said his three sons — Owen, Bryan and Charles Robert — grew up fishing, hiking and roaming the tract. They, ultimately, had the most to say regarding the sale, according to Taylor.
“We grew up hiking to these magnificent waterfalls and fishing in these beautiful trout streams,” Owen Taylor told the Transylvania Times. “By working with the conservation groups, we hope that our children and future generations will continue to have access to the land while opening it up to wider public enjoyment and protecting its water supplies for long-term community benefit.”
According to Roe, there are other tax incentives that landowners such as Taylor are eligible for when they sell their property to a conservancy. There are conservation tax credits, and often the difference between the sale price ($33 million in this case) and the appraised value is seen as a charitable donation.
The southern boundary of the property abuts tens of thousands of acres of publicly owned lands in South Carolin, including an eight-mile common boundary with the Greenville, S.C., watershed. On the North Carolina side, the parcel fits like a jigsaw puzzle between DuPont State Forest and Gorges State Park, creating much needed wildlife corridors.
There are more than 25 waterfalls on the property and more than 50 miles of high quality trout streams that provide habitat for endangered and/or threatened species such as the Appalachian brook trout, green salamander and hellbender (a large aquatic salamander). The tract is also home to the federally endangered rock gnome lichen.
This volume of high quality water is seen as a significant resource for Buncombe and Henderson counties as the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson counties have built a water intake and treatment facility at the confluence of the Mills and French Broad Rivers.
The tract also contains nine miles of the Foothills Trail, a 107-mile trail network primarily in South Carolina that connects Caesar’s Head State Park in South Carolina with the Gorges State Park in North Carolina. The trail is maintained by the Foothills Trail Conference on a year-to-year lease. Public ownership of the Headwaters tract would guarantee that the trail system would remain intact. Public ownership would also guarantee that Sassafras Mountain, the highest peak in South Carolina, would remain intact.
Opening the tract to the public could also provide significant economic benefits to the region. The Wildlife Commission estimates that hatchery supported waters such as those in the East Fork tract contribute as much as $72.7 million annually to the state’s economy. A 2008 Wildlife Commission study estimated that fish and wildlife-related recreation generated $4.3 billion in state income in 2006.
And there may be more treasures to find. The Blue Ridge escarpment is noted for its biodiversity. This transition stage between the piedmont and mountains contains a myriad of microhabitats including spray cliffs and Southern Appalachian bogs.