Feds listening to our outdoors agenda

By Ken Murphy

Western North Carolina is a special place, a region with awe-inspiring scenic vistas, waterways and forested watersheds that are home to unmatched biodiversity, and rural landscapes and cultural sites that remind us of our heritage on a daily basis. However, the demands of the modern economy have led to the loss of many of our working farms and forests, the disappearance of wild areas, and threats to clean air and water.

Fortunately, our region is blessed with many community-based environmental and conservation organizations, each seeking to protect our land, water, and wildlife. These local organizations (including local offices of national organizations) are uniquely positioned to “make things happen” through decisions of local stakeholders and elected officials so that effective and innovative conservation efforts can succeed.

Because tax and spending policies are increasingly set on the federal level, the framework in which our local organizations act is largely determined on the national stage. Our local organizations — no matter how hard-working and resourceful — cannot continue to be successful if they work in an atmosphere of indifference to the challenges they face. Since federal policymakers act in a remote urban setting, and since future generations cannot vote, the risk of inadequate support for local conservation objectives is high. Thankfully, somebody is now listening.

Last April 16, President Obama established the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, led by the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, the Administrator of the EPA, and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. The Initiative recognized that our country is in many ways losing touch with — and in many cases losing — the places and traditions that have helped make America special. Importantly, the President ordered that the Initiative conduct listening and learning sessions throughout the country, sessions in which the full range of interested groups could speak to the problems and solutions involved with protecting special places. A listening session is scheduled for Asheville on July 15 (see www.doi.gov/americasgreatoutdoors for details).

Given that somebody is listening, we have not only an opportunity, but in some sense a duty, to speak out in order to enhance means of protecting our landscape and sharing our natural treasures with those who are losing touch with them. By speaking of our accomplishments, we can encourage others to replicate and build upon our success. By speaking of our challenges, we can encourage decisions that help lower barriers rather than raise them.

For example, the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee (LTLT), which primarily operates west of the Balsam Mountains, plans to speak of the success we have had in working with local landowners and in combining private contributions and government grants in order to acquire and protect significant portions of Cowee, the richest and most intact cultural landscape in the region we cover. Cowee was the principal commercial and diplomatic center of the Mountain Cherokee in the 18th century. William Bartram, who traveled through the area in 1775, described the setting as “one of the most charming natural mountainous landscapes perhaps any where to be seen.” The, LTLT has made great strides in securing this landscape, and in 2007 succeeded in conserving the Cowee Mound itself in partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and the state of North Carolina.

LTLT has plans for further work in the region, and these plans are not without challenges. For example, through a generous private donation and financing through a local bank, LTLT was recently able to purchase a 108-acre forested tract that includes Hall Mountain, which overlooks the Little Tennessee River and the Cowee Mound. As a result, LTLT has expanded to over 380 acres the network of conserved land surrounding the ancient mound site. LTLT is working with the EBCI and others to seek permanent protection of the Hall Mountain tract under the USDA-Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program.

Establishing the Hall Mountain tract as a community forest would provide tribal members and the surrounding community an opportunity for vocational education in forestry as well as an active demonstration site for quality forest stewardship. The tract could also be managed to provide artisan resources, such as white oak, to the Cherokee basket weavers.

While LTLT will speak to its successes and challenges in land conservation, the listening session in Asheville on July 15 is a rare opportunity to be heard on a number of outdoor-oriented issues. I hope to see you there.

Ken Murphy is vice chair of The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee

Farm preservation tour a lesson in community conservation

North Carolina’s farmland is rapidly disappearing. The state has lost more than a million acres of it since 2007, and only 17 percent of the land in cultivation in 1950 is still farmed. In the mountains, the pressure to develop flat land near water sources accentuates the problem.

“That’s the first place a developer will build,” said John Beckman, pointing at his melon field in bottomland. “I could have subdivided this into one-acre lots and sold them all as waterfront property.”

Beckman and a handful of other property owners along Tilley Creek in Cullowhee are working in conjunction with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee to save their land from development and keep it farmed by using conservation easements and elbow grease. Last Saturday, they opened up their properties to the public to showcase the effort.

Four separate landowners in the Tilley Creek watershed have put more than 200 acres of land into conservation easements and kept close to 20 of those acres bearing food.

“People look to county and state government to conserve land, but there’s another way it can happen,” said Paul Carlson, executive director of LTLT. “There’s starting to be a cumulative conservation story in Tilley Creek.”

Tough row to hoe

Beckman doesn’t have any illusions about why farming has all but disappeared in Western North Carolina.

“Nobody wants to farm. It’s hard work. There’s not hardly any money in it. I still haven’t found anything that makes money,” Beckman said.

A builder and a developer who was raised in upstate New York and has lived in Maine, Colorado, West Virginia and Wyoming, Beckman moved to Jackson County from Raleigh in the mid-1990s to run an organic farm on Betty’s Creek. After selling that property to developers, he intended to take a break from farming, but fate intervened.

The historic Pressley farmstead, a picturesque piece of land that was farmed by Bob Pressley between 1900 and 1960, was in danger of becoming a shooting range. In 2006, Beckman bought the 200-acre property, which is only three miles from the Western Carolina University campus, in a tax foreclosure auction with the intention of preserving it.

“Rather than being smart and taking a break, I got involved in another project right away,” Beckman said.

But Beckman couldn’t afford to pay taxes on the entire property, so he put 135 acres into a conservation easement with LTLT. He has divided the rest into 5 to 10-acre lots centered on a common area that can be farmed. So far he has only sold one of them, to Cindy Anthony, a Pressley descendant who has hopes of restoring the old farmhouse to its original splendor. But Beckman’s broad aim is to create a new model for land conservation and development.

On his own piece of the land, he’s spent the past three years creating an organic farm that produces a wide array of vegetables to sell at farmers markets. The effort to clear his garden plot, which had reverted to a mixed poplar forest, was tremendous.

“The saying is we’re blessed with rock and it’s true,” Beckman said. “You can’t stick a shovel in the ground without hitting rock.”

Beckman hauled out 20 truckloads of rock and used it to build his “Frank Lloyd Lite” house beside the burbling waters of Tilley Creek. But for Beckman, the job of figuring out how to minimize the workload of running a 5-acre farm is part of the challenge. To that end, he was thrilled to welcome interested conservationists for a tour.

“It doesn’t do any good to get other farmers out here,” Beckman said. “That’s the choir. Half of my job is education. Showing people this is possible. Showing people you don’t have to kill yourself.”

Russ Regnery came to the tour having never been to Tilley Creek. Beckman’s farm and the precedent it offers blew the Macon County native away.

“It’s just a fantastic example to set for people,” said Regnery. “You can have a way of life that pays for itself and preserves an agricultural tradition that almost doesn’t exist anymore.”

Beckman estimates that he spends 20 hours per week in his fields during the growing season, but he maintains that people should bite off whatever they feel they can chew.

“What I want to emphasize to people is that farms don’t have to be 100 acres,” Beckman said. “Everybody should have a 10 by 10 plot in their backyard.”

As for the broader picture of farmland conservation, Beckman believes there isn’t a single approach that will do the job. County and state government will have to spend money to preserve what they can, and private landowners will need to work with land conservation groups like LTLT to create a patchwork quilt of farmland in places like Tilley Creek.

“It’s going to take the contributions of a lot of people working a lot of different angles,” Beckman said.

Setting the example

Joan Byrd has lived on Tilley Creek for almost 40 years. She started her life there on a one-acre lot on the ridge above where she lives now. Twenty-six years ago she married her husband, George Rector. Both of them are ceramics instructors at WCU. They purchased land and began farming a pasture alongside Bryson Branch, a picturesque mountain stream off Bo Cove Road.

In order to preserve their peaceful life on the mountain, they continued buying land that was likely to be developed. Five years ago, they put 40 acres into a conservation easement with LTLT.

“We just didn’t want it to be developed,” Byrd said.

While Byrd still focuses her energy on her pottery studio in summer, Rector has embraced the backbreaking work of maintaining a stunning garden of raised beds, grapevines and kiwi pergolas. To look at the perfectly manicured beds is to understand that a garden can be artistic as well as functional, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require hard work.

“There’s a lot of stoop labor involved,” said Rector. “The Italians have a saying that the ground is very low. I remember that a lot at the end of the day.”

While Beckman fights the rocks on his land, Rector has settled into a 30-year war with voles, burrowing rodents that have a taste for vegetables. His potatoes sit in the ground in makeshift containers with hard bottoms and wire mesh sides, and as the season goes forward, he mounds the plants with soil.

The struggle is worth the effort for Rector, who sees producing food as a step towards self-sufficiency that may become critical in the future.

“Cheap food is a luxury right now, but it’s cheap because oil is cheap,” said Rector. “That may not always be the case.”

For Kate Parkerson, outreach coordinator for LTLT, Beckman and Rector are the unsung heroes of the farmland conservation movement because they have succeeded in showing how the land can be saved and used by the people who live on it.

“Some people think that if you put your land in conservation you can’t use it,” Parkerson said. “You can’t use it for development, but you can use it in a way that’s productive and energizing and free and still protects the resource.”

The landowners of Tilley Creek –– Vera and Don Guise own another historic farmstead higher up Tilley Creek with a 48-acre conservation easement, and Kathy Ivey, their neighbor, has 46 acres in conservation –– are preserving a watershed that could easily have been cut up into tiny pieces for second home lots.

“If the people who owned these properties didn’t see the risk and take the steps to get the conservation easements, that might have happened,” Parkerson said.

Through their efforts, they want to show that the value of land is in the way that you use it, not how much you can get for selling it.

About LTLT

LTLT helps to conserve the landscape of the upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee river valleys by protecting private lands from inappropriate development. LTLT does this by working with private landowners to place conservation easements on their property, by accepting gifts of land, and by purchasing at-risk properties. As of September 2009, LTLT had protected 3,564 acres through conservation easements, and another 1,278 acres through acquisition. LTLT also played an important role in the State of North Carolina’s acquisition of the Needmore Tract, a 4,500-acre tract on the banks of the Little Tennessee River. www.ltlt.org.

Tract with road side views of Cowee Mound conserved

The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee has saved a key tract from development along the Little Tennessee River near Cowee Mound.

The Land Trust bought three acres that were being marketed for an RV park. The low-lying land, which sits between N.C. 28 and the river, has 900 feet of river frontage and lies directly across the river from the Cowee Mound.

“This is a great acquisition that will support a community vision of heritage-based development in this historic landscape,” said LTLT’s Sharon Fouts Taylor. “With some modest investment it can provide a safe place for people to pull of the highway, park, and view the river and the mound.”

The purchase was made possible by a gift from Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury, key philanthropists for land preservation in the mountains.

In 2007, Cowee Mound itself was protected by LTLT in partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the state, now augmented by the protection of a near-by parcel.

The ancient Cowee Mound was at the heart of the principal commercial and diplomatic town of the mountain Cherokee in the decades leading up to the American Revolution. A council house on the mound seated hundreds. In the mid-18th century, Cowee was at the geopolitical center of the South due to its position in the principal trade route through the southern mountains into the interior of the continent.

An 1837 map of Cowee shows a bridge crossing the river at the site of LTLT’s new purchase.

“When the river was low during the severe drought two years ago, large squared boulders that must have buttressed that bridge were clearly evident in the river channel between this parcel and the mound on the opposite bank,” said Paul Carlson, LTLT’s Executive Director. “The Little Tennessee River and the largely-intact historic landscape of northern Macon County are the greatest local assets we have for future economic development as well as for enhancing the fine quality of life we enjoy in this area.”

www.ltlt.org or 828.524.2711.

Nantahala headwaters tract protected

A 248-acre tract known as Rainbow Springs at the headwaters of the Nantahala River in Macon County has been protected through a conservation agreement between the long-time landowners and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.

The property owners, Myra Waldroop and her family, were honored with the Land Conservationist of the Year Award by the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee this month.

The tract is adjacent to Nantahala National Forest lands in the Standing Indian area and contains nearly 4,000 feet of the Nantahala River. It lies on either side of the Waterfall Scenic Byway, which runs from Rosman in Transylvania County to Murphy.

The property has been in the family since the 1850s, at first as a hunting and fishing retreat then a site for family vacations.

“Many family traditions live on,” said Myra. “With this long history, my family and I decided we wanted this property protected from development. The LTLT was our solution. We appreciate working with the folks at LTLT.”

During the 1920s and ‘30s, the Ritter Lumber Company operated in one of the meadows. A thriving lumber town included a post office, commissary, hotel and school. A railroad hauled lumber down the river to be shipped away. In 1948, Myra’s father, Carl Slagle, retired to Rainbow Springs, and later, Myra inherited a portion of the property where both of her daughters now live. The property is currently used for farming and sustainable timber harvest.

“The Waldroop Family conserved their land because of their love of the land and the heritage that the land represents,” said Sharon Taylor with LTLT.

Land trust branches out, helps preserve community store

The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee has taken the protection of the historic landscape one step further with the recent purchase of a century-old general store in the Cowee community in Macon County.

One acre at a time: Paul Carlson helps set the standard among WNC land trusts

By Michael Beadle

Paul Carlson has plenty of maps to show you.

There are maps with stars. Color-coded maps of riverfront properties. Aerial photography maps. Maps of the past and maps of the future.

LTLT preserves 850 acres in Cherokee County

A cattle farm in Cherokee County known as Ridgefield Farm has been preserved for future generations thanks to a conservation agreement between the Whitmire family and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.

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