Archived Outdoors

Nature Center unveiled: Balsam Mountain Preserve opens Southern Appalachian exhibit to the public

Walking into the new nature center at the Balsam Mountain Preserve in Jackson County is like walking into a replica of a Southern Appalachian forest, with all the best goodies already uncovered and there for the taking — or rather touching.


A fox jaw, deer antlers, a squirrel tail, owl feathers, reams of animal pelts, seed pods, a taxidermied bear, turtle shells, black walnut hulls — the list goes on and on.

“The fun part is to decide ‘what is it?’” said Michael Skinner, executive director of the Balsam Mountain Trust. “Discovery — that’s what we want people to do. We want to encourage observation.”

You could easily spend hours examining, touching and feeling all the objects on display, making the Balsam Mountain Preserve Nature Center one of the most hands-on displays of its kind in the region. You can also test your knowledge of nature at the microscope station, uncovering the identity of obscure trinkets plucked from the environment — like beetle mandibles and moss spores, or even the difference between moth and butterfly antennas.

“Most moths fly at night, and they need more sensitive antennas so they branch out almost like a feather,” said Ron Lance, one of the staff naturalists. Unlike the wispy splay of moth antennas, butterflies have the traditional insect antennas — a little nodule atop a single stiff hair.

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More formal collections at the nature center include insect mountings, pressed plant specimens and arrowheads and spear points dating back 12,000 years. The collection of Native American artifacts ranges from the earliest known occupation in the region all the way up to European contact.

Native American artifacts aren’t the only cultural exhibits on display. One corner of the nature center is dedicated to the history of Col. Jones and Ruby City. That’s an old mining encampment once located on the Balsam Mountain property, ruins of which are still visible.

Whether it’s a family with kids on vacation, a retired couple or a Girl Scout troop, the nature center is open to groups of all sizes and ages. Anyone wishing to visit the nature center does need to call ahead and make and appointment, however.

“That’s the only caveat,” Skinner said.

The nature center also has several volunteer opportunities for the public who want to get involved with everything from environmental education to plant collecting to caring for the on-site raptors. The nature center currently has three resident birds of prey: a kestrel, a red-tailed hawk and a great horned owl. There are also live snakes for viewing for those with an affinity toward reptiles.

The nature center also has a small auditorium and a classroom for giving lectures and slideshows, showing movies or teaching workshops. One public workshop Skinner occasionally conducts is taxidermy. Skinner has various wildlife possession and salvage permits, allowing him to collect everything from black bear to bobcat found dead along the roadside.

Those who have heard of the Balsam Mountain Preserve might be acquainted with a few key facts. It’s a mega-development with massive acreage, it’s ultra high-end and it is known for its conservation practices and eco-mantra. But that might be about it.

“There are still a lot of people who hear about Balsam Mountain and wonder what goes on up there,” said Skinner.

So here’s a quick primer. The nature center is operated by the Balsam Mountain Trust, the conservation arm of the Balsam Mountain Preserve. The Balsam Mountain Trust is a separate non-profit that oversees and carries out environmental initiatives on the property. Of the 4,400 acres at Balsam Mountain Preserve, 3,000 are protected through conservation easements managed by the Trust. The staff of the Balsam Mountain Trust develop natural resource management guidelines for the entire mountain — conserved area, as well as privately held lots.

“We hope the people who buy here know they are becoming part of a community in a park,” Skinner said. “What they do in their yards affects the whole area.”

For example, before new homeowners build, an inventory of plants on their property is conducted and rare and endangered plants are rescued and relocated out of the construction zone.

The Trust employees three staff naturalists — Skinner, Blair Ogburn and Lance. In addition to manning the nature center and conducting environmental education for residents and the public, the naturalists are engaged in numerous initiatives to preserve and protect the ecology on the property. Part of the job is simply documenting what’s on the property, witness by the filing cabinets full of catalogued pressed plant specimens.

Skinner is currently coordinating a project to reintroduce native brook trout to one of the streams on the property.

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