Living better together: New Balsam Mountain Trust director aims to make people and wildlife better neighbors

Located up a narrow mountain road in a building about the size of an average single-family house, the Balsam Mountain Trust Nature Center is tiny compared to Executive Director Michael Wall’s last professional home, the San Diego Natural History Museum in California. 

Balsam Nature Center property headed for sale on court house steps

jacksonA nonprofit nature center ensnared in a foreclosure saga at Balsam Mountain Preserve is one step closer to being evicted.

A natural fit: Balsam nature center a hub for research and education in the mountains

out Fr“Hey buddy, you about ready to come out?” Michael Skinner asks the juvenile broadwing hawk standing in the back of a plastic carrying case. 

Skinner, executive director of the Balsam Mountain Trust and jack of all environmental trades, slowly reaches his gloved hands inside and pulls the raptor out. The bird flaps its brown-and-white wings for a moment but quickly settles down. Skinner sets him atop the cage for a moment, where he sits untethered, surveying the small storage room where Skinner keeps supplies for the nature center’s diverse charges — everything from box turtles to an opossum to a bald eagle.

Balsam Mountain Trust Nature Center caught in foreclosure quagmire

fr balsampreserveHomeowners in the high-end Balsam Mountain Preserve development are trying to strike a deal with an investment lender from New York to stop the foreclosure of their community nature center.

Trust in mother nature: Balsam center provides hands-on experiences

Enter Balsam Mountain Trust’s nature center and you’ll come face to face with bobcats, skunks, black bears, maybe even a sharp-taloned raptor poised for the kill. But, don’t worry — the animals don’t bite.

The taxidermy creatures are just a few of the educational tools used by the nonprofit to teach people — mostly school children — about wildlife in Western North Carolina.

“You have specimens that people are not going to get up close to,” said Michael Skinner, executive director of Balsam Mountain Trust. “It’s just a way to build a bridge for people into the natural world.”

Balsam Mountain Trust, which is celebrating its 10th year, is a nonprofit focused on preserving the natural environment in part of the Balsam Mountains about mid-way between Waynesville and Sylva.

The Trust’s programs allow kids to explore their outdoor surroundings, see animals they might not otherwise see and learn more about Western North Carolina’s native wildlife.

“We want to be able to fill that niche of getting kids outside,” said Blair Ogburn, the Trust’s senior naturalist. “People fear so many animals and bugs.”

The ideas is that if people understand more about the critters, they won’t be scared and will learn how to behave around them.

Skinner started educational programs nine years ago, talking to local fourth-grade classes — which remains the ideal age the Trust caters to.

Last year, the Trust hosted programs for about 6,000 students, Ogburn said.

“We can teach pretty much anything,” Ogburn said, but the birds of prey and reptile programs are by far the most popular.

This is partly because of the Trust’s impressive array of live birds and reptiles, from a bald eagle to a timber rattlesnake. When teaching about mammals, the trust draws on its collection of skulls and pelts, as it doesn’t keep live mammals.

“When you talk about mammals, you talk about a whole slew of permits,” Skinner said. And, mammals are “messier,” he said.


Tamed wildlife

The trust has three naturalists who care for 18 live animals. There currently are no plans to add any new ones to the mix.

“As much as we all love animals, we have to be very, very careful about providing them with adequate care,” Skinner said. “We have kind of reached our saturation point with the number of animals we have.”

The animals cared for by Balsam Mountain Trust couldn’t survive on their own in the wild. They’re injured either psychologically or physically. Physical injuries can include a bum eye or wing, while emotional harm is the result of imprinting. If an animal imprints on a human, they lose their natural fear of humans and are outsiders when it comes to their own species.

Just because the nonprofit is permitted to own specific animals, however, does not mean they are allowed to rehabilitate them.

“We aren’t rehabilitators,” both Ogburn and Skinner emphasized.

The Trust only has permission to house recently injured animals for a brief period if a vet cannot be reached. For example, if an animal is injured during the weekend, the Trust will keep it until Monday when a veterinarian’s office opens. However, Trust employees encourage people to contact a vet or find a local animal rehabilitation center.


The Balsam Trust team

All three employees have distinguished backgrounds that led them to Balsam Mountain Trust.

Skinner has worked at several zoos and hosted an Emmy-nominated outdoors show “Georgia Outdoors” on public television. Ron Lance has a background in botany, forestry and horticulture has authored or co-authored 11 publications. Ogburn has worked as an environmental educator in Charlotte and a field biologist for the Smithsonian Conservation and Research Center.

“For me, just traveling around and exploring the natural world, I would go anywhere,” Ogburn said. “The reason why I love this job is because I (get to) share my passion (with others).”

The Trust’s wide variety of species draws a number of researchers, from forestry students at Western Carolina University to a survey of threatened and endangered species by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Researchers have conducted nearly 40 studies since 2000 — and many of them are ongoing.

While Trust employees coordinate with researchers, they also focus on inventorying various insect, bird and plant species. At last count, there are 800 species of vascular plants on the preserve’s 4,400 acres.

“We’ve got a remarkable plant diversity here,” Skinner said.

The nonprofit does not electronically track any animals. Rather they use visual and auditory tracking to identify creatures.

In addition to cataloging the wildlife and offering educational programming, the Trust maintains the biodiversity of its forest. One particular pest is the hemlock wooly adelgid, which infests and kills hemlock trees. The Trust is not trying to eradicate the insect but rather restrict how far it spreads. Both natural and manmade pesticides can be used to protect the trees.

“You are always looking to find what might potentially be a problem and then finding ways to deal with it,” Skinner said. “What you hope for is control, a balance.”


‘A community within a park’

Balsam Mountain Preserve is unique in that it is an upscale development as well as a nature preserve.

“It’s a community within a park,” Skinner said. “That’s a big reason why people decide to buy and live here.”

When initially founded, the developers of Balsam Mountain Preserve decided to set aside more than 3,000 of its 4,400 acres were set aside as a nature preserve guaranteed to stay wild and development-free.

Balsam Mountain Trust was established to care for and oversee the land. It is independent of Balsam Mountain Preserve even though it is contained within the development.

“We are our own nonprofit,” Ogburn said.

The Trust held its first fundraiser last year with the Balsam Mountain Preserve homeowners and raised about $200,000, Skinner said.

This year, the nonprofit wants to open up its fundraiser to members of surrounding communities. And, of course, the animals would attend, Skinner said.

“For us, it’s just such an important part of our message,” he said.

The preserved land is roughly 3,000 acres total but may add another 550 acres. There is a contiguous section of land that the developers may decide to incorporate into the Trust’s lands because it would be difficult to turn into human living space.

“For me, that is nothing but exciting,” Skinner said.

The land would have no development on it other than a possible nature center, Skinner said. The nature center is currently near the neighborhood’s tennis courts and golf course, and the Trust would like it to move further into the undeveloped portion of the preserve.

In the future, the Trust also plans to expand its aviary beside the nature center to give the fowl more space and visitors a better look at the birds.

“Right now, it’s hard for people to do that,” Ogburn said.

The current cages are housed in a small wooden shed, which allows for only few people at a time.

Outside of its caged birds, the Trust also catalogs the types of birds found on the preserve and makes sure the bird populations are not threatened or overrunning the mountain ecosystem.

The Trust is applying to be named an Important Bird Area, or IBA, by the National Audubon Society, which focuses on restoring and conserving the natural ecosystem in the U.S. IBAs have habitats essential to the preservation of one or more species of bird and have greater access to resources to help maintain the habitat and species.


What is the Balsam Mountain Trust?

The Balsam Mountain Trust is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and teaching about the mountain ecosystem. It was founded in conjunction with Balsam Mountain Preserve, an upscale, eco-development on more than 4,000 acres. More than 3,000 acres within Balsam Mountain Preserve were set aside as a nature preserve. The independently run Trust manages the nature preserve and does educational nature programs for children and groups. It has three staff naturalists.


Educating youth

The Balsam Mountain Trust offers a variety of programs for students based on state educational standards. The different programs focus on anything from birds to mammals to reptiles and amphibians.

The nonprofit also hosts programming for adults and non-school related groups, including scouts and civic organizations.

To find out more about the Trust’s program offerings, visit and click on the education tab.

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.

Taking it outside: The Balsam Mountain Trust offers nature hikes, outdoor seminars, workshops and research studies in a richly diverse tract of 4,400 acres in Jackson County

By Michael Beadle

At first it sounds like a contradiction — a land developer interested in protecting the environment. Is it possible to balance commercial interests and at the same time protect pristine forests with diverse habitats?

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