Headwaters tract deal hinges on Wildlife Commission

Kieran Roe, executive director of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, said that if the North Carolina Wildlife Commission does not commit to managing the East Fork Headwaters tract that the deal could fall through.

“There’s a lot riding on what Wildlife Resources decides,” she told The Smoky Mountain News in an interview this week.

Roe is guardedly optimistic that CMLC and its partner The Conservation Fund will be able to close on the property before the end of the year.

On CMLC’s website it states: “Funding for this project is not the chief issue. Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and our partner, The Conservation Fund, have identified funding sources. While not guaranteed, the funders are unlikely to invest in East Fork Headwaters unless it enters the public domain. Given the high quality hunting and fishing on the tract, WRC is the most likely candidate for managing the tract. Note that WRC is not expected to take title to East Fork Headwaters immediately. The Conservation Fund will continue to own East Fork Headwaters for the time being until the total purchase price has been paid to the landowner. However, The Conservation Fund cannot make the initial $3 million down payment without the commitment of WRC to establish a game land and eventually take title to East Fork Headwaters. The Conservation Fund is not set up to own land indefinitely.”

The state Wildlife Resources Commission is playing it close to the vest. Chris McGrath, faunal diversity coordinator for the agency, said that Wildlife Commission biologists have been to the property, have consulted with the owners and potential buyers, and have assisted in assessing the merits of the property. He said the biologists have written reports detailing their findings for the director’s office, but that any management decisions would have to come from that office.

Geoff Cantrell, Wildlife Commission public information officer, would only say that the Headwaters tract was on the Land Use and Access Committee’s agenda for discussion on Wednesday, Nov. 3, and that the committee report would be on Thursday’s agenda.

Roe noted that Wildlife Commission was, “… not being asked, at this point, for any funding. We’re just asking them to work with us on managing the property.”

(Check online at www.smokymountainnews.com after Thursday’s Wildlife Resources Commission meeting for an update.)

Bankrupt development conserved for future state park

A failed megadevelopment in the Lake Lure area around Chimney Rock has been conserved at a fire sale price, but a state budget crunch is leaving a local land trust with a big fundraising goal to pay for the conservation effort.

Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy purchased a 1,527-acre tract north of Lake Lure in Rutherford County that was once part of the 4000-acre “Grey Rock at Lake Lure” residential subdivision. The developer, Orlando-based Land Resources, filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and abandoned the development.

“It is relatively rare for tracts of this size and significance to become available for conservation,” said CMLC Executive Director Kieran Roe. “I believe the community will look back in coming years and feel very gratified that conservationists stepped up and acquired this gem for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”

The conservancy purchased the land for $2.29 million, or $1,500 per acre — which is one-third the $4,500 per acre value established in a recent property appraisal.

A gift of $620,000 from a North Carolina philanthropist provided a down payment, but Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy had to take out $1.95 million in loans to finance the purchase of the tract, known as Weed Patch Mountain.

“We simply couldn’t afford to put Weed Patch in the ‘gone forever’ column,” says David Efird, Lake Lure resident and CMLC trustee. “Weed Patch will be huge in terms of recreation and preserved green space in the area. A win for everybody.”

The nonprofit now has a steep road ahead, however, to raise the money need to pay off the loans, which were made by Conservation Trust for North Carolina and the Norcross Wildlife Foundation.

Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy would like to transfer the property to the state for inclusion in Chimney Rock State Park.

However, state revenue shortfalls have placed a strain on public sources of conservation funding such as the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund and Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.

“There is a possibility the land will be added to Chimney Rock State Park, but with the state revenue situation, the state can’t commit itself right now,” Roe said. “Even if it is never added to the park, the Weed Patch Mountain tract will continue to protect views from the park and provide a buffer of conserved green space.”

A corridor of protected property around Chimney Rock State Park has been expanding exponentially in recent years thanks to a combination of state funding, private philanthropists and the work of land trusts in finding new properties.

Fast action by the private conservation groups allowed the tracts to be saved from development when the opportunity arose and until the state could earmark funds for the acquisition.

To date, 4,320 acres have been set aside for the park. Additional property in the area is privately owned but protected through a conservation agreement between the landowner and a land trust or owned by a land trust itself.

“Conservation of Weed Patch Mountain adds another protected emerald to the crown of conserved land near Chimney Rock State Park,” said says Lynn Carnes Pitts, CMLC vice president.

The tract provides an essential link for the “Six Summits Trail,” a network of trails envisioned by local hikers that could one-day circumnavigate Lake Lure.

The tract is home to scenic ridges, distinctive rock outcrops, dense hardwood forests and abundant trout streams.

The property, a state-designated Significant Natural Heritage Area, is home to rare species such as the green salamander. The low elevation cliff and rock outcrops on the property have been identified in the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission’s State Wildlife Action Plan as critical habitats for several rare birds and amphibians.

“If homes were to start popping up on Weed Patch, it would not only take away a beautiful vista, but more importantly it would disturb the ground, increase muddy runoff and make it harder for water to penetrate the bedrock that refreshes Lake Lure,” Pitts said.

www.carolinamountain.org or call 828.697.5777.

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