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Library countdown: Volunteers help ready books for the move

Good things come to those who wait.

It’s an adage Jackson County library users will need to bear in mind this spring during a month-long closure of the Sylva branch during the massive move into its brand-new, first-class digs.

Librarians face the daunting task of packing up 35,000 books in circulation at the current library and arranging them in their new home. It can’t be done while continuing to keep the doors of the library open, according to Betty Screven, public relations chair with Friends of the Jackson County Library.

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Volunteers with Friends of the Library are lining up to help with the operation. In fact, they’ve already started.

They have been combing the stacks of the Sylva library outfitting each book with a special radio-frequency identification tag. The new tags will take the place of the traditional barcodes used to check out books today.

Radio-frequency tags allow entire piles of books to be scanned at once, not only making it easier to check books in and out but also to keep track of collections. Librarians can inventory of a whole shelf in seconds without ever taking a book off. Library users will even be able to check out their own books.

The technology is considered cutting edge, but making the transition to the radio-frequency tags is too expensive and time consuming for most libraries to tackle.

The new library, which was constructed as an enormous wing on the back of the historic courthouse, will be more than three times bigger than the current one. The county is spending $8 million to build the library and restore the historic courthouse.

Jackson County Friends of the Library raised $1.8 million to furnish the library — from shelving to armchairs to desks — with $400,000 of that devoted to buying new books and materials. Newly purchased library items will come already equipped with the radio-frequency identification tags.

The new library will have a soft opening sometime in May with a grand opening planned for Saturday, June 11.

State budget timing critical to local governments

Local boards are finding themselves on the wrong end of the dog when it comes to putting together budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

In Jackson and Macon counties, at work sessions held by commissioners in their respective counties last week, much of the discussion at these relatively informal get-togethers involved speculation on when — and what — might be expected from the state General Assembly.

The state, as it were, would be the front end of the dog.

North Carolina is facing a projected $3.7 billion shortfall. Thousands of state jobs are threatened, with massive cuts expected to come for health and human services, schools and other critical services offered on the state and local level.

So, what does that mean for counties?

“There are certain things we have to provide,” said Evelyn Southard, finance officer for Macon County.

And not knowing how much money will come down the pike from the state complicates matters, she said. When counties will know the full extent of the financial devastation is unknown, but that knowledge is critical to local boards starting preparations on budgets for the next fiscal year.

Macon County Manager Jack Horton warned his board that even though members of the General Assembly are making happy noises about having their budget passed by the end of June, August is more typical, and the state has actually lagged before into October.

“We have to have the (ability) to take care of the county business whether the state gets their house in order or not,” said Horton, a veteran administrator who has also worked over the years in Swain and Haywood counties.

 

Jackson faces immediate shortfall

In Jackson County, officials were concerned about staying within this year’s budget in addition to preparing next year’s.

Jackson County must either slow its spending, interim Manager Chuck Wooten said, or the county must dip into the fund balance — those are the two choices facing Jackson’s commissioners. An across-the-board cut for county departments seems the most palatable option of the two, Wooten said.

The problem is not enough people are paying their taxes in Jackson County. A gap between the budgeted tax-collection rate for the current fiscal year, and the actual collection rate occurring so far is 0.62 percent off what was originally projected. Sounds tiny, but that adds up to big bucks: there is a projected revenue shortfall for the current year of $336,004, including failures to pay vehicle taxes.

The recession has taken its toll on all counties when it comes to people paying their taxes. Jackson’s budget for this year assumes a property tax collection rate of 95.4 percent. Last year, the tax collection rate was only 94.8 percent, but county leaders apparently banked on it coming back up.

Wooten said as a result this year’s budget is “too optimistic,” though he stopped short of assigning blame. Wooten replaced longtime County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland in January.

In response, Jackson County commissioners indicated they would probably become more aggressive in tackling tax scofflaws.

“Why have we not gone after this?” Jackson Chairman Jack Debnam asked, presumably of the only two (Democrats) commissioners who remain from the previous board.

Debnam then answered his own question: “I know, we’re a small county — they could be friends and relatives.”

New Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, warned his fellow members that favoritism must play no role.

“If we go down this road, it is important to treat everyone equally,” he said.

Macon County leaders, by comparison, were merry about having a mere $34,283 projected discrepancy.

“And I think there’s some room in here for our expenditures and revenues to be even better than is shown here,” Southard said.

In other state-local government news, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners last week passed a list of legislative goals the group wants state leaders to adopt. Beale, who attended the meeting, summarized the top five priority goals of the group:

• Oppose shifting road maintenance from the state to the counties.

• Reinstate Average Daily Membership, a formula that uses school enrollment to determine funding levels, and lottery funds for school construction.

• Ensure adequate mental-health funding by seeking legislation for adequate capacity of state-funded acute psychiatric beds; oppose closing state-funded beds until there is adequate capacity statewide, and seek legislation to maintain the existing levels of state funding for community mental-health services.

• Preserve the existing local-revenue base (don’t take money streams away from already-hurting local governments).

• Authorize local revenue options by allowing counties to enact by resolutions, or at the option of boards of commissioners, by voter referendum any or all revenue options from among those that have been authorized for any other county.

Industries in arrears on rent and loans face county crackdown

With what they claim is hundreds of thousands in unpaid rent and loans on the line, Jackson County commissioners have ordered three delinquent tenants at county-owned industrial sites to pay up, or else.

Precisely what “or else” means hasn’t been spelled out. But, in a 5-0 vote, commissioners did make clear last week they want the money they believe is owed the county. That would be $92,700 from QC Apparel; $104,550 from Stanton and Stanton; and $83,166.72 from Clearwood Lumber.

The county has been prodding at least two of the industries to pay up since last summer. The former board of commissioners discussed the issue in closed session on more than one occasion.

Their less-than-stellar track record with the county goes back years, however. Their failure to stay current on revolving loan payments portrayed the old Economic Development Commission as being lax in its oversight of the revolving loan fund. That in turn triggered a county takeover of the EDC, but the county hasn’t done much better since it has been at the helm.

In addition to the back rent, QC Apparel has an outstanding revolving loan of $410,094, and hasn’t made a payment since January 2008, interim County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners. Clearwood has an outstanding revolving loan of $76,716.87, and hasn’t made a payment since May, he said.

Neither QC Apparel nor Clearwood Lumber returned phone messages seeking comment. Wooten said he had not received a response as of earlier this week to the dunning letters sent to any of the three companies.

Charles Stanton, owner of Stanton and Stanton, told The Smoky Mountain News on Monday that commissioners are mistaken. He does not owe back rent, because his woodworking company put in “a lot of money fixing up the building” per a lease agreement. Stanton said he planned to meet with Wooten this week and attempt to clear up the matter.

Stanton said his company has six full-time employees and six to 12 installers working at any given time under contracts.

QC Apparel and Stanton and Stanton are located in the former Tuckaseigee Mills building on Scotts Creek Road. Clearwood Lumber is in Whittier.

Jackson County Development Corp., a nonprofit arm of the county’s Economic Development Commission, originally purchased Tuckaseigee Mills.

Jackson County commissioners shift into reverse on hiring policy

When Jackson County’s new commissioners announced they would oversee all hiring to determine whether positions should be filled or wiped off the books, the mandate had a fiscally prudent, vigilant-watchdogs-of-taxpayer-dollars sound.

“I have to admit, this is causing somewhat of a problem in being able to manage this,” interim County Manager Chuck Wooten told the board last week, just more than a month after commissioners so tightly grabbed the reins.

Though commissioners control the budget, statutorily speaking the sheriff and register of deeds — both elected positions — have full powers to do the hiring and firing in their own departments, Wooten pointed out.

Wooten also asked: did commissioners really want to clog-up the system (about 4 percent of the Jackson County workforce is currently open) by scrutinizing positions mainly paid for using state dollars, such as at the health department and in social services, which have their own overseeing boards? And, what about contracted and grant-paid positions? Take a transit driver, 85 percent grant funded, as an example of the latter category, Wooten said. Do you need to personally approve who is hired?

Well, no, now that the problems being created by practically their very first official decision as commissioners (during a Dec. 6 meeting) has become clear, it turned out the board didn’t really want oversight of those hiring decisions. In a 5-0 vote, they agreed in those cases to let others — the departments or boards directly involved, or Wooten — make the hires.

Unlike municipalities in North Carolina, county commissioners must vote for their manager to be given hiring oversight. State law gives town managers that right without elected leaders’ say-so. Most of the state’s 100 counties’ board of commissioners automatically extend that power to the county manager hired to, well, “manage” the county.

Jackson County commissioners did, however, retain the review-before-advertising-any-county-positions paid for purely with county money, via the general fund. Though, it should be noted, Wooten advised the five men they might want to reconsider that decision, too.

Wooten was hired as a temporary replacement for former County Manager Ken Westmoreland, who either elected to leave voluntarily before the new board convened in December, or who was shown the door. This depending on whom you believe, Westmoreland (who said he was forced out) or Chairman Jack Debnam (who said “it was his decision”).

Wooten retired Jan. 1 after 30 years of experience overseeing Western Carolina University’s finances. He has said he expects to help commissioners hire a replacement county manager within six months or so.

Jackson County has three new commissioners: Debnam (a conservative independent); Doug Cody (a Republican) and Charles Elders (a Republican). Democrats Mark Jones and Joe Cowan round out the board.

Supporters want to keep county funding for Green Energy Park

Supporters of Jackson County’s methane-powered Green Energy Park urged county leaders last week not to slash funding to the innovative project.

“What is the Green Energy Park?” Aaron Shufelt, a glass artisan and intern at the park, asked rhetorically during the public session of the county commission meeting, one of seven people who spoke about the issue.

“(It is) a place where creative and passionate people come together to experience the arts. The Green Energy Park is unique because they are dedicated to preserving the arts through education and the utilization of green energy. The result is economic growth for Western North Carolina.”

Jackson County’s new three-man-slate of conservative commissioners have sharply questioned the viability and future of the Green Energy Park. The project was launched about five years ago (under a board totally dominated by Democrats, now just two remain) as a means of capturing methane from a closed landfill in Dillsboro and turning that waste byproduct into energy. Today, methane helps power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing facilities and a large greenhouse, with the artisans paying rent and fees to the county.

Republican Commissioner Doug Cody, a successful businessman in private life, has been crystal clear about his beliefs that the park needs to pay its own way. This isn’t out-of-the-blue posturing on Cody’s part — the previous board of commissioners, too, said they intended for the park to become economically self-sustaining. The sticking point is when, exactly, this should take place.

Green Energy Park Director Timm Muth notes previous commissioners never set a timetable. This year alone, the Green Energy Park is set to receive $218,422 in taxpayer dollars. Total, the park has received $1.2 million from the county’s general fund since 2006.

John Burtner, a blacksmith who has used the park as an incubator to grow his business, credited the venture with keeping him gainfully employed. Burtner said he believes he would currently be out of work without use of park’s shop and tools. The blacksmith has used his two-and-a-half-years there to start equipping his own shop elsewhere, he said.

“This whole time, I’ve been busy, profitable,” Burtner told county leaders.

Commissioners, while deciding the fate of the Green Energy Park, might want to factor in the following. According to the January 2006 minutes of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, then County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland noted: “The county had anticipated spending approximately $1 million to satisfy requirements imposed by the EPA and DEHNR concerning the unfavorable release of methane (from the landfill) into the atmosphere. The dollar amount will be expended (in building the park), but for a beneficial use and is a ‘win-win’ situation … because it is so unique, the project will more than likely receive national attention and visits to the area.”

GEP does produce private-sector jobs

To the Editor:

I thoroughly agree that it is past time to wake up, get Jackson County moving.” For too long we have relied upon the national and state governments to provide leadership and direction for us in Jackson County and Western North Carolina. It is past time that we came together and charted our own economic future. One of the leaders in this economic renaissance is Timm Muth, the director of Jackson County’s Green Energy Park (JCGEP).

Commissioners, I appreciate your taking a look at various county departments for efficiency, effectiveness, and fiscal responsibility. It is important for our county representatives to promote open, honest, accountable, and fiscally responsible government at all levels. Otherwise, we might as well hold out a tin cup to Washington, D.C., and Raleigh and be grateful for the pennies that we do get back from the dollars that we send them.

Muth appeared before you on Jan. 3 of this year asking for a replacement to his departing assistant. You asked him some pointed questions and made the excellent suggestion that he produce a cost-benefit analysis study so as to better show you how the JCGEP benefits all of Jackson County.

I went to the JCGEP a few days before your Jan. 18 meeting and had Muth show me what he has done, what he is doing, and what he wants to do with his operation. Frankly gentlemen, the benefits of the JCGEP for the county are impressive. Capturing methane gas from the old Dillsboro landfill and using it to create viable, tax-paying, private-sector jobs is no small feat.

According to a study just recently released by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (www.p2pays.org/ref/-53.52107.pdf), there are currently over 15,000 private sector jobs that have been created to recycle valuable materials here in North Carolina. These private sector jobs, which have been promoted by operations such as the JCGEP, have increased by 4.8% since 2008. The total annual payroll for these recycling jobs in North Carolina is $395 million. There are numerous other benefits created from these public-private partnerships.

What Muth has done at the JCGEP not only is currently paying economic dividends for the investment that our county is contributing, it also has the strong probability of promoting many more private-sector jobs, tourism dollars, and tax monies to return to the citizens of Jackson County.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll be talking more about the JCGEP and the unique, positive benefits that it creates for Jackson County. In the meantime I would urge all of you commissioners to call Timm Muth, invest a little of your time going to the JCGEP, and find out the many positive benefits generated there. Remember, gentlemen, that these benefits that you will see are not in the future, but they are occurring right here and now in Jackson County.

Carl Iobst

Cullowhee

Future of Green Energy Park might lie in the numbers

Jackson County has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Green Energy Park since launching the innovative project about five years ago.

Rent and usage fees offset a portion of the costs. Taxpayers, however, largely underwrite the venture, an examination of county finance records show. The county has kicked in a total of $1.2 million since 2006 (see infobox).

The park is built next to a closed county landfill near Dillsboro. Methane, a byproduct of the decomposing trash, is captured and used to heat a greenhouse and help power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing studios and a metal-art foundry. Plans call for building pottery studios. Some of that structure is already up.

A $204,730 Rural Center Grant is being counted on to help complete the pottery studios, but word on whether the county will actually get that money hasn’t yet come.

At question is whether the county’s new conservative majority of commissioners will continue subsidizing the project, with or without grant assistance — particularly since the Green Energy Park epitomizes the environmentally friendly, look-toward-the-future thinking of the three Democrats ousted in November.

 

By the numbers

An examination of the current year’s budget for the Green Energy Park shows rent is projected to bring in $25,000, and “donations” an additional $10,000. The overall budget for the Green Energy Park is $458,152, but that number is misleading because it includes the Rural Center grant for $204,730, intended to offset the exact same amount in expenditures for building the pottery studio.

No grant, no building, Muth explained in a recent interview.

Utilities get a $17,000 budget line item this fiscal year. Salaries and wages, $99,756 — Muth is paid $64,626.12. His helper, Carrie Blaskowski, who left the county post to join a family business, was budgeted to receive $35,129.38.

Muth, in a commission meeting , asked permission to advertise Blaskowski’s open position. Instead, commissioners ordered — or rather, Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, and Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, ordered — a top-to-bottom cost analysis of the Green Energy Park. (New Commissioner Charles Elders, also a Republican who ran on a platform of change with Debnam and Cody, hasn’t proven much of a talker during the meetings, leaving onlookers little choice but to assume he is in agreement with his two conservative cohorts.)

Two Democrats, Joe Cowan and Mark Jones, remain on the board of commissioners, but to date have appeared reluctant to publicly defy the board’s newcomers. Perhaps because they want to work together the best they can for the good of the county. Or perhaps because they anticipate running for reelection themselves in two years, and learned from their fallen fellow Democrats that a financially strapped voting electorate doesn’t have much patience.

Cowan, in fact, joined conservative commissioners earlier this month when they peppered Muth with questions about the park. For his part, Jones didn’t exactly defend the project. But Jones did point out that carbon credits from the Green Energy Park could be sold in the future, helping offset some of the project’s cost.

 

What’s it all about?

“This is about trying to create jobs,” Muth said.

If completed as originally envisioned, the Green Energy Park will create 15 to 20 new jobs for Jackson County. The project was intended to be economically self-sustaining — though Muth said no timetable was ever mandated.

“They never gave me a date,” the park’s director said.

Although the Green Energy Park is clearly Exhibit A for a majority of commissioners anxious to publicly flex their conservative muscles, Muth might have picked up a somewhat unlikely ally: Interim County Manager Chuck Wooten, the darling of the conservative trio of commissioners.

Wooten was picked to temporarily replace County Manager Ken Westmoreland after the three newcomers showed him the door. (Or, that’s what Westmoreland said happened. Debnam claimed the veteran government administrator volunteered to leave on his own.)

Wooten, in addition to having a majority of the board’s blessing, brings 30 years of experience in managing Western Carolina University’s budget and the nimbleness required to survive in that position. In other words, Wooten has virtually unassailable financial credentials, vast political know-how, and an ability to leave the job of county manager at any point if his relations with the board prove untenable.

“Tim and I have met a couple of times, and I have had the opportunity to visit the Green Energy Park and take a tour, so I have a better understanding of what’s going on,” Wooten emailed The Smoky Mountain News in response to questions about the park.

“We’re going to hold on the request for filling the position until we can complete the cost analysis,” he wrote. “I’m going to propose to the commissioners that they have a work session on possibly the afternoon of Jan. 28, and the Green Energy Park would be one of the items for discussion. I think we can complete our fact-finding by then and provide some better information to the commissioners for their consideration. …It’s obvious to me that the Green Energy Park can probably not be self-sustaining in the short term but when we consider some of the indirect benefits of the park then the numbers become more manageable.”

Wooten this week said he does not feel Jackson County is the point of actually abandoning the project, but rather re-examining and rescaling the venture. The interim county manager said he needs, with Muth’s help, to understand commitments made on previous grants — particularly, would the county have to repay money in the event of changes to the Green Energy Park?

 

County contributions to Green Energy Park

• 2006-2007 – $100,000.

• 2007-2008 – $210,000.

• 2008-2009 – $447,383.

• 2009-2010 – $264,530.

• 2010-2011 – $218,422.

Public hearing set for landfill problem

Jackson County’s old solid waste landfill is leaking contaminants in higher concentrations than allowed into the groundwater, and satisfying state demands to safely contain the situation will cost taxpayer dollars.

Altamont Inc. representative Joel Lenk told commissioners this week that drinking water in the area has not been contaminated and is safe to use. The old landfill is less than a mile from Dillsboro. Several families living near the it rely on individually drilled wells for water, according to a report based on the company’s findings.

Altamont, headquartered in Asheville, collects water-monitoring samples at the old landfill for Jackson County.

Commissioners this week set a public hearing — as mandated by the regulating agency, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources — on possible remedies. The hearing will be held Feb. 7 at 1:30 p.m. After that, the next step will be to develop a state-approved corrective action plan, Lenk said.

The most expensive remedy, which involves treating the groundwater at the site, could cost more than $1 million. Responding to questions by Chairman Jack Debnam, Lenk said, however, the county will probably be able to pay his company an additional $10,000 per year for sampling and to satisfy the state.

Debnam, newly elected in November, initially proposed setting the hearing time for 1:45 p.m., with a regularly scheduled meeting starting at 2 p.m. Mark Jones, a veteran commissioner on the board, suggested moving the time back because, he said to Debnam, “you might draw a bigger crowd” than realized given the possible environmental implications.

Jones’ concerns that holding a public hearing during working hours might not give people an adequate opportunity to attend, however, were brushed aside. Debnam pointed out the board would be providing people the state-required 30 days notice.

 

Landfill timeline

• Groundwater sampling starts in 1998, Altamont company hired.

• Jackson County starts testing residential water-supply wells on annual basis in the late 1990s from residents who consented to sampling.

• At the same time, Jackson County installed and began monitoring landfill gas probes along the perimeter of the property.

• The last shipment of waste was taken at the landfill in June 2001.

• A monitoring well was installed into bedrock in 2004 to determine whether impacted groundwater was migrating northward toward a residential water well.

• In 2005, a full-scale operation of extracting landfill gas started. It was thought that the removal of the gas could provide benefits to groundwater quality.

• In July 2010, an additional bedrock monitoring well was installed to evaluate groundwater quality in fractured bedrock southwest of the landfill.

Commissioners demand ‘green’ wonder prove black-and-white dollar value

How fickle fortune can be, Timm Muth, the director of the oft-touted Green Energy Park, found upon tendering a simple request this week to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.

Muth’s desire to advertise an open staff position gave way instead to a drilling down into the project’s overall worth — or, rather, its continued cost. The park, envisioned at the outset some five years ago as economically self-sustaining, has to date not been.

But it will be, Muth said. Just wait until the original vision is completed: the addition of a new pottery studio and studio spaces. Then, Muth said, the rent received from artists and craftspeople will prove the tipping point.

“I don’t see how you can make that statement,” newly elected Republican Commissioner and local businessman Doug Cody flatly responded after eliciting from Muth that there’s an absence of hard numbers to back that claim. Prove it, Cody told him. Perform a cost analysis, top to bottom.

The Green Energy Park opened late in 2006 to overwhelming public acclaim. This was a time, not so long ago, when Democrats ruled Jackson County and North Carolina.

The park was deemed a “technological first,” an environmental wonder, “the first place anywhere” to take landfill gas and use it to make biodiesel fuel, as Muth said then. By his side were officials eager to share in the glory of such a thing. Those officials included Larry Shirley, then the director of the North Carolina State Energy Office, who proclaimed: “This is an example of what will take place across the nation and the world.”

Maybe not. These days, the wind is blowing right, not left. And the Green Energy Park might not survive conservative commissioners’ efforts to back election promises they made to scrutinize the county for fiscal waste and potential savings.

The Green Energy Park was built next to a closed county landfill outside Dillsboro. The $1.2 million project was a means of recovering methane — a byproduct of the landfill’s decomposing trash — to heat greenhouses and help fuel a blacksmith forge. A crafts village (hence the pottery studio Muth mentioned) was part of the plan.

Last summer, the Green Energy Park served as a backdrop for a visit by Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The officials came for a tour, along the way dubbing the project a symbol of the new green economy.

Less than three months later, Republicans grabbed control of the state’s General Assembly and of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. In addition to Cody, Republican Charles Elders was elected, as was Chairman Jack Debnam, who ran as an Independent but relied on the GOP’s local political structure and advertising dollars to help secure victory.

Debnam started Muth’s difficulties in front of the board, reeling off a series of questions in Socratic fashion about the project’s cost to taxpayers: some grant money that had been built into the Green Energy Project’s budget hasn’t come through; the irony that thousands of dollars are required from the county to support the park’s utility bill; about rent and such not offsetting other costs.

Muth, who surely had some sense of what was coming because there were references to a prior tour of the facility by the board’s new members, seemed unprepared to answer such pointed questions.

About that pottery studio, Cody said: “All that sounds good on paper, but it costs money.” Cody made additional requests for hard numbers. And he asked the director, “What’s the end game on this thing?”

Democrat Commissioner Joe Cowan joined in with questions. He told Muth the board hadn’t had been given adequate time to review the information that was provided. More time also was needed, Cowan said, to review the director’s request that he be allowed to advertise for a new employee to replace Assistant Director Carrie Blaskowski.

Muth left to Cody’s words, “I’d just like to reiterate that I’d like to see a cost analysis done on the whole thing.”

More Blue Ridge Parkway viewshed protected

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) recently protected Blackrock Ridge in northern Jackson County, a striking and important component of the Plott Balsam Mountains. The Plott Balsams, which reach 6,000 feet in elevation, tower above Waynesville, Sylva and Cherokee. Blackrock Ridge is a 60-acre parcel just a little south and west of Waterrock Knob, which is located at milepost 451.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Blackrock Ridge lies within the Yellow Face/Blackrock Mountain State Natural Heritage Area and Audubon North Carolina’s Plott Balsams Important Bird Area. The tract ascends Blackrock Mountain where it adjoins The Nature Conservancy’s 1,595-acre Plott Balsam Preserve.

According to Jay Leutze, SAHC trustee, the organization had been negotiating with the landowner when it learned the property was going to be auctioned.

“We had five days to raise donor funds,” Leutze said. “We’re fortunate — we don’t have a lot of bureaucracy — and we can be pretty nimble,” he said. SAHC was nimble enough to be high bidder and purchased the tract for around $110,000.

The tract is located near the newly created Pinnacle Park (Sylva’s old watershed), and trails maintained by natural resources students from Western Carolina University link the Blackrock Tract and Pinnacle Park.

Leutze said SAHC was extremely happy to be able to preserve the Blackrock tract. “It’s in a larger assemblage of private tracts and would have surely been developed,” he said.

 

Attributes

The proximity to thousands of acres of already protected wilderness makes the tract important as a wildlife corridor. Blackrock Ridge attains an elevation of 5,600 feet, making it an ideal habitat for high-elevation species like the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel. According to Leutze, Carolina northern flying squirrels have been documented on The Nature Conservancy’s Plott Balsam Preserve and the protection of this tract will add further protection and preserve more suitable habitat for the endangered flying squirrel.

Protection of the tract also helps preserve the cultural heritage of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who have strong ties to the craggy peaks of the Plott Balsams.

 

A nice fit

Leutze said that SAHC breaks the regional landscape up into “focus areas.”

“This allows us to focus on who would be likely partners and where to find likely donors for particular projects,” he said Blackrock Ridge falls within SAHC’s “Smoky Mountains Focus Area.”

“The Smoky Mountains Focus Area, of course, includes efforts to try and help buffer the Park [Great Smoky Mountains National Park] but it also provides the opportunity to try and protect outstanding high-elevation sites like this one that don’t have a lot of protection,” he said.

And parcels that help protect the integrity of the Blue Ridge Parkway viewshed help protect the goose that lays the golden egg.

“A 2007-2008 study noted that 90 percent of the visitors that come to the Blue Ridge Parkway come for the view,” said Carolyn Ward, the new head of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation (BRPF).

That translates into about $2.3 billion for communities adjacent to the Parkway.

“Those of us who live in the area know the value of protecting our natural resources and anytime we can add land, whether by purchase or by an easement, it helps protect that resource,” said Ward.

Ward said that the one of the BRPF’s projects for 2011 would be to help design guidelines for protecting viewsheds along the scenic byway that celebrated its 75th birthday in 2010.

Ward said the foundation would not only focus on the technical aspects and/or options for protecting tracts of land that would be useful to landowners and organizations and agencies but also work on outreach and education for residents to help them see the incredible value of the resource.

“Protecting our viewsheds is critical,” she said.

 

 

About SAHC

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy — headquartered in Asheville — is one of the oldest land trusts in the country.

SAHC was founded in 1974 and works to conserve the unique plant and animal habitat, clean water, local farmland and scenic beauty of the mountains of North Carolina and east Tennessee for the benefit of present and future generations. SAHC achieves this by forging and maintaining conservation relationships with landowners and public agencies, owning and managing land, and working with communities to accomplish their conservation objectives.

SAHC’s flagship project is protecting the Highlands of Roan in Mitchell and Avery counties North Carolina and in Carter County in Tennessee. But its focus areas include the Smoky Mountains, Newfound and Walnut Mountains, Pisgah Ridge and Balsam Mountains, Black Mountains and the Mountains of East Tennessee.

To learn more about the SAHC visit www.appalachian.org.

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At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.