Archived Outdoors

Land for sale — yours

When Dick Morgan, a fisherman from Maggie Valley, heard that two acres on Hurricane Mountain was on the chopping block in the proposal to sell off portions of the national forest, the gravity of the plan hit home.

One of this favorite fishing holes, Hurricane Creek in the Harmon Den area of Haywood County, comes off the mountain, close enough to its own headwaters to host coveted native brook trout. If sold, the tract atop Hurricane Mountain would make a trophy house site for someone, but sediment from the construction would muddy his precious Hurricane Creek, he said.

“It wouldn’t take much to annihilate that little stream. That is a delicate ecology situation up there,” said Morgan, who works as an optician in Asheville. “Anytime you have an environment that is disturbed, everything pays the price That’s one more slice of the pie that keeps getting taken away needlessly.”

Billed by National Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., as a way to raise money while unloading unimportant pieces of the national forest, even the smallest of tracts in the proposed sale have incited anger. Finding a piece of the national forest in Western North Carolina that no one cares about has proved impossible, whether the land makes for a nearby weekend reprieve or simply a nice view on the drive to work.

Dwight Caldwell, a horseback rider who lives in Haywood County, has run into people complaining about the plan nearly every where he goes lately.

“It is absolutely ludicrous. It is just asinine,” said Caldwell, summing up what appears to be a general consensus in the mountains. Caldwell has yet to find anyone for it, inspiring the top question: Who in the world came up with this idea? And did they actually think folks would go for it?


The great unifier

Opposition against the national forest sell-off crosses party lines unlike any issue the otherwise divided nation has seen in recent years. For Harold Corbin, a strong Republican in the Republican stronghold of Macon County, the forest service land sale is not your typical environmental issue that falls under the domain of Democrats. It would claim more than 600 acres atop the knob named after Corbin’s family, some of Macon County’s first settlers.

“From where I am sitting right now at my breakfast nook, I am looking out the sliding glass door at Corbin Knob and Jane Mountain at a lot of the land proposed to be sold. I am looking right up the valley at it,” said Corbin, former chairman of the Macon County commissioners who is running again this fall. “To me it has a personal nature because it is my heritage.”

Corbin never tires of telling the story of his forbearers. A man and four sons came to Corbin Knob, built a log lean-to — basically strips of bark laid over a fallen tree trunk —to serve as shelter while they built a log cabin.

“When they got the house built they went back where they came from and brought the wife and daughters back in a covered wagon,” Corbin said. “They started clearing land and made a little farm. It has been handed down from generation to generation.”

Corbin knows there’s only one fate for the forest land if it’s sold. But the developers’ insatiable appetite for land wouldn’t stop there.

“People who own tracts nearby, a developer would make it so interesting to sell, the first thing you know the whole mountain would be covered in condos and houses,” Corbin said. “That’s the thing that really scares me.”

The recent proliferation of high-end resort development appears to be the great unifier in the outcry over the land sale. Delos Monteith, a fisherman from Sylva, said fishermen need to hang on to every acre of public lands they can. As development mushrooms, private property where hunters and fishermen once traipsed freely thanks to the friendly former owners are being gated.

“All outdoorsmen deal with that — less and less private property is available to the general public to use,” said Monteith. “It is all becoming posted.”

Fishermen have it easier than most outdoorsmen. Streams are public property, even when flowing through private property. Once a fisherman gets into a stream, he can move up and down it to his hearts content regardless of who owns the land along the banks.

“You can stay in the stream and go anywhere you want to, but you can’t always cross private land to get to the stream,” said Milt Wofford, a fisherman from Sylva. “Once the land is private, it becomes more difficult.”

Wallace Messer, a bear hunter in Haywood County, also laments the gated communities constricting national forests.

“Your dogs don’t always go where you point them,” Messer said. “If he has no trespassing signs up there, you have no right to go get your dog off his land.”

Dwight Caldwell, a horseback rider in Haywood County, said he hasn’t examined the sell-off tract by tract, but that’s not the point.

“I don’t know if there are any trails where we ride or not,” Caldwell said. “Philosophically it is public land. Who is going to be able to buy the property? The rich are getting richer.”


Land is forever

The idea of some tracts being too small to matter doesn’t fly with Wallace Messer, a bear hunter in Haywood County. A bear working his way from Harmon Den to Hot Springs in Madison County could use 50 acres here and there as a habitat island.

“That bear doesn’t know where it’s at. He doesn’t know whether he is on forest service land,” Messer said. “You are taking away habitat.”

The list of land seems haphazard at best. Only 1.4 acres in Haywood are on the list, compared to Macon’s 2,500 and Madison’s 1,500. But outdoors lovers across the mountains aren’t keeping quiet just because their county fared better than others on the list.

“Our brothers in Macon and Madison, we got to help them,” said Messer. “One point four acres here isn’t that much, but that’s not the point. When are they going to come back and say, ‘We are going to sell off 12-mile, Wilkins Creek, Hurricane.’”

Jackson County, with less than 200 acres on the list, also got lucky compared to the biggest hit counties. Milt Wofford, a fisherman in Sylva, said no one might miss it in the long run. But no one would miss the money it generated either.

The money would go to schools in counties with national forests. National forests don’t pay property taxes. Instead, the forest service made a promise nearly 100 years ago to contribute directly to local schools. Instead of paying the money out of federal coffers, the Bush Administration pitched the land sale as a way to fund a few more years of the school payments from forests.

“A couple hundred acres is not that big a deal in Jackson, but don’t think it will solve the problem of a tax base for the schools,” said Wofford. “A one-time payment would do good for the students now, but not for students 20 years from now.”

It’s one of the most common arguments against the land sale. Money, especially in the hands of the government, disappears quick. Land is forever. And while you can print more money, you can’t make more land.

“The precedent it sets is of great concern to me,” Sylva fisherman Delos Monteith said. “I don’t think the selling of forest service property is a good way to go about funding schools. Once the property is out of the public domain, it is gone forever.“

Timm Muth, a mountain biker in Jackson County, agreed.

“That seems so short sighted to sell land off you would only get money from one time,” Muth said. “We are so poor we have to sell off national forest land, but yet we can still afford tax breaks for millionaires? Wouldn’t the kids be better off having the forest they can enjoy in the future?”

The national forests will only be more important as the urban populations push their way into the mountains, putting greater pressure on the outdoor getaways, Monteith said.

“The National Forest Service land in this area is a great asset,” Monteith said.

A common fear is that once it started, the nibbling away of national forests wouldn’t stop.

“Once you sell off land, it’s gone,” Messer said. “We are losing land every day to developers. We hunters and all sportsman, horseback riders and hikers, that’s something we lose. We need to keep all the land that we got for the public.”

Esther Cunningham, a Macon County resident, said the people of WNC have the power to stop this plan.

“The people need to know this is their land — it doesn’t belong to the forest service,” Cunningham said. “If all the people who don’t want the sale will come out with a loud voice, that is the only thing that will save it.”

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