“This is the beginning of a multi-phase project where, as funds become available, The Conservation Fund will work to convey the property to the sanitary district, and the sanitary district will manage it as watershed land,” Bill Holman, North Carolina director for The Conservation Fund, told the group of land managers, donors, elected officials and landowners gathered Sept. 13 at Maggie Valley Town Hall.
Protecting the 710 acres, previously owned by the Queen family, was itself a $3 million endeavor. Nearly half of the funding, $1.3 million, came from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, which is a program of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Another $1 million came from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, with $20,000 from the Pigeon River Fund. The remaining $627,500 is due to private support from landowners who sold their property for less than market value and to donations from Fred and Alice Stanback, and Brad and Shelli Stanback.
Neil Carpenter, district manager for the Maggie Valley Sanitary District, can well remember the project’s genesis, 15 years ago. Junior Ward, a lifelong friend of Carpenter’s who at the time worked for the N.C. Forest Service and is now with the sanitary district, had brought up the concept, and after reviewing the project Carpenter and his board of directors were quick to jump on board. They started working with Mark Megalos, who at the time was the forestry stewardship coordinator for the Forest Service, and invited the 16 major landowners in the area to come enjoy a meal and learn about the project. Remarkably, they all attended, and they were all supportive.
“We encouraged all 16 landowners to go home, pray about it, talk to your family about it, and just get back to us at some point in the future,” said Carpenter. “That night before those landowners left the building, every one of them — all 16 of them — pledged support for this project.”
So began the quest to map the area, appraise the parcels, apply for funding and navigate the countless legal and bureaucratic hurdles that accompany any land conservation project.
Fifteen years later, the first chunk of that property is permanently conserved, an achievement that will offer increased opportunity for outdoor recreation; provide key habitat and corridors for wildlife such as elk, bear and all manner of birds; and protect Maggie Valley’s supply of clean drinking water for future generations.
“The average person doesn’t really realize what’s happening in this room today, and how important this asset is that you all are protecting, that everyone in this room has been involved in protecting,” Haywood County Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick told the group Sept. 13. “One day clean water is going to be more expensive than oil. It’s going to be more expensive than milk. It’s going to be more expensive than so many things that we value now.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Walter Clark, executive director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, said later in the program. “I think clean water is going to be a commodity that becomes more valuable and more rare, not just in this country but around the world.”
As of now, Maggie Valley has outstandingly clean water. This year, the Maggie Sanitary District was honored as one of 57 water treatment plants statewide to earn recognition from the N.C. Division of Water Resources for meeting a set of performance goals significantly more stringent than those required by state and federal standards. That wasn’t just a fluke occurrence — Maggie is a frequent flier on this annual list of outstanding water systems.
Neil Carpenter, manager of the Maggie Valley Sanitary District, addresses the crowd during the Sept. 13 dedication. Val Keefer photo
But those accolades are at least partially due to the fact that the slopes and peaks whose tributaries feed Campbell and Jonathan Creeks — which, in turn, feed Maggie Valley — have remained mostly undeveloped. The 710 protected acres, along with the 1,350 acres slated for conservation, will ensure that those creeks’ headwaters remain clean and pure for decades and centuries to come.
Mike Murphy, the U.S. Forest Service’s regional coordinator for the Forest Legacy Program, said this project is one of the most significant efforts he’s been involved with, despite having 11 years in his current position, in which he is responsible for a 13-state area. During his remarks, he recalled a trip he and his wife took to Peru last year with a couple friends, one of whom, David, had grown up in the country’s upper Amazon region. Murphy was excited to see this place he’d heard so much about — to experience firsthand the animals and plants and towering forests of his friend’s stories. But that’s not what met them when they arrived. Instead, they found that the jungles of David’s boyhood had been replaced by towns grown into cities, wilderness tamed into towns and enormous agricultural fields growing bananas, coffee and pineapples.
For Murphy, that experience injected new meaning into the conservation efforts in Maggie.
“What does this really mean?” said Murphy. “What I was not able to see in Peru, someone 50 years from now, 100 years from now, can come up here and look and see what we see today. That’s what this means.”
For Brad Stanback, a donor in the project who also serves on the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, protection for the growing elk herd will be a vital outcome of this conservation project and others like it. The elk were introduced to the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 2001 and 2002, but their numbers are growing, and they need protected corridors to be able to move through the landscape without being forced to cross roads or private lands.
“A bull elk came through town a few years ago and went off into the Plott Balsams, came back, went back to the Smokies, picked up a herd of six cows, brought them through the town and up to the Plott Balsams,” he said. “Now there’s a breeding herd of elk in the Plott Balsams. This project just gives them a lot more room to move around and expand their range.”
But it’s not just about the 710 acres, or even about the 1,350 acres. The Conservation Fund has been leading a slow but relentless charge to conserve as much land as possible along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina, especially in the high-elevation Plott Balsams with their winning combination of beautiful views, rare spruce-fir habitats and diversity of plant and animal inhabitants.
Earlier this year, The Conservation Fund closed on two properties adjoining the Parkway in Jackson County and totaling 912.5 acres, which are in the process of being transferred to the Town of Sylva and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. A nine-year effort led to the 2018 establishment of the 6,730-acre Headwaters State Forest in Transylvania County, with The Conservation Fund taking the lead in that project. In 2017, the 1,925-acre Silver Game Land — which adjoins the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is close to the newly protected 710 acres — was added to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s holdings, thanks largely to work from The Conservation Fund. And in 2016, the Blue Ridge Parkway celebrated the addition of 5,329 acres to its boundary at Waterrock Knob thanks to the work of four separate land trusts. The Conservation Fund was the largest contributor to that effort, responsible for 2,986 acres.
All that’s needed to properly appreciate the magnitude of these efforts is a quick trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway. From Maggie Valley, it takes only about 10 minutes to drive up to Soco Gap and then jump on the Parkway to arrive at an overlook featuring views looking back toward Maggie Valley. In the distance rolls a ridgeline whose peaks include Waterrock Knob, Browning Knob and Mount Lynn Lowery. A couple more ridgelines jut up mid-scene, their peaks hiding the valleys from view.
It’s a beautiful vista, and it will stay that way — from that vantage point, everything in sight is conserved land.
“It’s really amazing,” said Murphy, “to think that we’re able to be a part of something that’s going to be here forever.”