Below the Pinnacle: Project seeks to protect 250 acres below Pinnacle Rock
The 3.5-mile hike to the top of Pinnacle Rock is a heart-pumping one, the old logging roads that now serve as hiking trails climbing 2,200 feet before leaving the hiker breathless before a sweeping aerial view of the Town of Sylva, cradled on all sides by forested mountain slopes.
The view is the flagship offering of Pinnacle Park, whose core area of 1,088 acres once served as Sylva’s watershed and now offers a worthy hiking challenge within minutes of town. But few people are aware that only half of the rocky outcropping known as Pinnacle Rock is actually part of town property, or that the pristine acreage below that rock is private land that could be developed at any moment.
Scramble for protection
Now, thanks to Mainspring Conservation Trust, it won’t be.
“When you go out onto Pinnacle Rock, you’re not on town property anymore,” said Mainspring Executive Director Jordan Smith. “So not only is that important to conservation, but we’re potentially conserving the whole viewshed.”
Mainspring is currently under contract for two properties that combined cover more than 250 acres starting on Pinnacle Rock and spreading out below it. Mainspring started talking with the owners of the first parcel — a 157-acre tract that contains a portion of Pinnacle Rock — back in 2019, and it expects to close on the sale this May. Action on the second parcel, estimated at 96 acres and adjacent to the 157-acre tract, moved forward much more quickly. It went on the open market last year, and after competing with a developer for the sale, Mainspring is under contract with hopes of closing in February or March.
“Because of the pandemic, we just felt like as close as this is into town, as developable as the properties are, we needed to move fairly quickly,” said Smith.
Once completed, the conservation effort south of Pinnacle Park will nestle an additional 250-plus acres of conserved land between the 1,088-acre original section of Pinnacle Park and a 438-acre piece of the Nantahala National Forest. Those parcels, in turn, are connected on the north side to the 441-acre Blackrock Creek and 471-acre Shut-In Creek tracts conserved in 2017, as well as an area totaling more than 5,000 acres that is under conservation easement for eventual conveyance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. From there, the network of conserved lands runs into the existing Parkway boundary, from which protected lands spider throughout its 469-mile journey from Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Unlike in 2019, when Mainspring and The Conservation Fund worked together to purchase the 912 acres that are now owned by the Town of Sylva and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the nonprofit is purchasing the 250 acres for which it’s now under contract without a solid plan for who will ultimately own it.
“That just underscores how important it was to get this under contract,” said Smith. “These really sit on the open market, so we had to move.”
The land is important for multiple reasons. First, the obvious — it’s adjacent to and even includes part of Pinnacle Park’s crown jewel, so any development there would significantly impact the overall recreational experience. Land Conservation Director Sarah Posey-Davis said that when the Mainspring team went to go inspect the property, staff members standing on Pinnacle Rock could easily hear those exploring the adjacent property below.
It’s also incredibly valuable from an environmental point of view. It contains an N.C. Natural Heritage area, as well as the entire upper watershed of Dills Creek, which has an active population of native brook trout — features in the creek prevent stocked trout from traveling upstream and overpowering the native trout population. Unique plant communities thrive on the upper portion of the property around Pinnacle Rock.
Smith also pointed out the land’s recreation value.
“These two properties actually have a pretty nice network of road that would favor a pretty significant trail system as they are, with just a little bit of intervention,” he said.
Such a trail system would offer much easier hiking than the existing heart-pumping climb to Pinnacle Rock, Posey said.
The soon-to-be-protected land contains valuable water, wildlife and plant resources.
Funding and ownership
While Mainspring is still figuring out how to pay for the purchases and who to deed the land, it’s got a good start on answering those questions.
Mainspring is under contract to purchase the two properties for $887,600. They were initially appraised at $905,000, but two pending appraisals now underway will determine the property’s final appraised value, and that amount will determine how much funding the effort receives from the N.C. Land and Water Fund, formerly known as the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Last fall, Mainspring received a $310,000 grant from the fund, of which $250,000 is designated for the cost of acquiring the 157-acre property and the remaining $60,000 is for survey and appraisal costs. However, awards are given as a proportion of the total project cost, so the amount received will depend on the appraisals’ outcome.
“Right now our appraisals are a little bit lower than we had anticipated for the overall value of the property,” said Smith. “We don’t expect that we’re going to get that full award from the Land and Water Fund.”
The nonprofit has also secured about $664,000 in commitments for private donations, but it’s still looking for at least $50,000 more to close the deal.
Mainspring has had some preliminary discussions about end ownership. The Town of Sylva is the obvious choice, because it already owns 1,530 acres of conserved land adjacent to the property. Mainspring has reached out to the town about that possibility, and during its Jan. 14 meeting the town board went into closed session to discuss the potential acquisition.
“It’s all very early, but it does touch our property, so I would imagine we’ll start talking about what the options or opportunities are for it,” said Town Manager Paige Dowling. “It’s all very, very preliminary.”
However, Dowling said, providing additional recreational opportunities would be a positive, and it’s encouraging to know that existing roadbeds on the land could be repurposed as trails.
“We are excited about continuing discussions on it,” she said.
The proposed addition at Dills Creek isn’t the only recreation-related discussion the town is having.
When Sylva and the EBCI took ownership of the properties to the south of the original 1,088-acre Pinnacle Park property in 2019, it was with the ultimate goal of developing them for recreational opportunities like hiking, camping and mountain biking. But building the required amenities for these uses — trails, roads, parking lots, etc. — takes time, money and partnerships. As of yet, no trails have been built, but that could soon change.
“We could realistically be in some construction phase for a few miles of trail this winter,” said EBCI Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Joey Owle.
The Nantahala Area Southern Off Road Bicycle Association has been talking to both the EBCI and the Town of Sylva about a possible partnership to build a trail network traversing both properties.
Ideas include a looped trail system that would ultimately offer various amenities such as primitive campsites and a pavilion/picnic area at the trailhead.
“What this trail development is aiming to accomplish is not solely focused on access for mountain bikers,” said Owle. “It’s going to be accommodating to all skill levels and abilities.”
SORBA has shown initial concepts to tribal and town leaders, and the next step will be formal presentations to the boards of both entities — the EBCI Planning Board and the Sylva Board of Commissioners. That’s expected to happen within the next month or so.
“I’m so pumped about it,” said Owle. “I’m excited about the partnership. I’m excited about the concepts so far.”