The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) recently protected Blackrock Ridge in northern Jackson County, a striking and important component of the Plott Balsam Mountains. The Plott Balsams, which reach 6,000 feet in elevation, tower above Waynesville, Sylva and Cherokee. Blackrock Ridge is a 60-acre parcel just a little south and west of Waterrock Knob, which is located at milepost 451.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Blackrock Ridge lies within the Yellow Face/Blackrock Mountain State Natural Heritage Area and Audubon North Carolina’s Plott Balsams Important Bird Area. The tract ascends Blackrock Mountain where it adjoins The Nature Conservancy’s 1,595-acre Plott Balsam Preserve.
According to Jay Leutze, SAHC trustee, the organization had been negotiating with the landowner when it learned the property was going to be auctioned.
“We had five days to raise donor funds,” Leutze said. “We’re fortunate — we don’t have a lot of bureaucracy — and we can be pretty nimble,” he said. SAHC was nimble enough to be high bidder and purchased the tract for around $110,000.
The tract is located near the newly created Pinnacle Park (Sylva’s old watershed), and trails maintained by natural resources students from Western Carolina University link the Blackrock Tract and Pinnacle Park.
Leutze said SAHC was extremely happy to be able to preserve the Blackrock tract. “It’s in a larger assemblage of private tracts and would have surely been developed,” he said.
The proximity to thousands of acres of already protected wilderness makes the tract important as a wildlife corridor. Blackrock Ridge attains an elevation of 5,600 feet, making it an ideal habitat for high-elevation species like the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel. According to Leutze, Carolina northern flying squirrels have been documented on The Nature Conservancy’s Plott Balsam Preserve and the protection of this tract will add further protection and preserve more suitable habitat for the endangered flying squirrel.
Protection of the tract also helps preserve the cultural heritage of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who have strong ties to the craggy peaks of the Plott Balsams.
A nice fit
Leutze said that SAHC breaks the regional landscape up into “focus areas.”
“This allows us to focus on who would be likely partners and where to find likely donors for particular projects,” he said Blackrock Ridge falls within SAHC’s “Smoky Mountains Focus Area.”
“The Smoky Mountains Focus Area, of course, includes efforts to try and help buffer the Park [Great Smoky Mountains National Park] but it also provides the opportunity to try and protect outstanding high-elevation sites like this one that don’t have a lot of protection,” he said.
And parcels that help protect the integrity of the Blue Ridge Parkway viewshed help protect the goose that lays the golden egg.
“A 2007-2008 study noted that 90 percent of the visitors that come to the Blue Ridge Parkway come for the view,” said Carolyn Ward, the new head of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation (BRPF).
That translates into about $2.3 billion for communities adjacent to the Parkway.
“Those of us who live in the area know the value of protecting our natural resources and anytime we can add land, whether by purchase or by an easement, it helps protect that resource,” said Ward.
Ward said that the one of the BRPF’s projects for 2011 would be to help design guidelines for protecting viewsheds along the scenic byway that celebrated its 75th birthday in 2010.
Ward said the foundation would not only focus on the technical aspects and/or options for protecting tracts of land that would be useful to landowners and organizations and agencies but also work on outreach and education for residents to help them see the incredible value of the resource.
“Protecting our viewsheds is critical,” she said.
The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy — headquartered in Asheville — is one of the oldest land trusts in the country.
SAHC was founded in 1974 and works to conserve the unique plant and animal habitat, clean water, local farmland and scenic beauty of the mountains of North Carolina and east Tennessee for the benefit of present and future generations. SAHC achieves this by forging and maintaining conservation relationships with landowners and public agencies, owning and managing land, and working with communities to accomplish their conservation objectives.
SAHC’s flagship project is protecting the Highlands of Roan in Mitchell and Avery counties North Carolina and in Carter County in Tennessee. But its focus areas include the Smoky Mountains, Newfound and Walnut Mountains, Pisgah Ridge and Balsam Mountains, Black Mountains and the Mountains of East Tennessee.
To learn more about the SAHC visit www.appalachian.org.