SAHC Purchases 448 Acres at Chestnut Mountain in Haywood County

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The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) has purchased 448 acres at Chestnut Mountain near the Town of Canton, permanently protecting sources of clean water and forested habitat in an important wildlife corridor.

SAHC plans to give the conserved property to the Town of Canton, after SAHC raises funds that are needed to re-pay a bridge loan it took out to buy the property. This will create the possibility for easily accessible outdoor recreation just off US Hwy 19/23 and Interstate 40.

“This property is dynamic, with a mosaic of habitat types – which is really good for wildlife – and different settings for people to enjoy various types of experiences on the land,” says Hanni Muerdter, SAHC’s conservation director. “The property starts at 2,360 feet elevation at Hwy 19/23 and then rises to 3,400 feet at the peak of Chestnut Mountain. At the higher elevations, forested ridgelines and coves situated in an important wildlife corridor provide exceptional habitat for plants and animals. It contains pockets of gentle mature hardwood forest with laurel and rhododendron, forested slopes facing a variety of directions, and an open field and early successional edge area beneficial for birds. The amount of wildlife activity on the tract is truly impressive!”

The property sits in a significant wildlife corridor identified by The Wildlands Network as important for animal movement and habitat. Its protection will conserve habitat for large mammals such as bear and deer, as well as smaller mammals and numerous bird, reptile and amphibian species. The tract was slated for an 8,300-seat grandstand motorsports speedway in the early 2000s, although the speedway was never developed.

“As a land trust, it is our role to try to look 10-20 years out to predict how expanding development will impact significant wildlife movement areas, water resources, and to try to secure spaces to allow people to enjoy getting out into the forest,” continues Muerdter. “This property is one of the remaining larger undeveloped tracts in an important area for conservation, and we are extremely excited the landowner wanted to sell the tract for a conservation outcome. This project presents inspiring potential for a public park — a vision of recreation and conservation working together.”

The NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) awarded $1.2 million toward the purchase of the property. The project protects several miles of tributaries to Hominy Creek which hosts a population of brown trout. According to Walter Clark, Executive Director of CWMTF, “the project not only protects wildlife and creates a valuable recreational resource, it also protects important water resources. It is an all-around exceptional land protection effort.”

“We are pleased that a grant from The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina’s Pigeon River fund was able to cover transactional costs to survey Chestnut Mountain Park property,” said Senior Program Officer Tara Scholtz. “Not only does this project permanently protect Wildlife Resources Commission designated Trout Waters and nine miles of stream, it also it meets other goals of the Fund including the enhancement of wildlife habitats and expanded public use and access to waterways.”

SAHC plans to gift the land to the Town of Canton to manage as a conservation-based public outdoor recreation park in partnership with Haywood County. Streams and habitat on the tract will remain permanently protected through conservation easements, and outdoor recreation prospects will be activities that work with conservation of the property. The Town of Canton and Haywood County are working together on potential outdoor recreation plans for the property, with support from the Cruso Endowment.

“This is the kind of opportunity that comes maybe once in a lifetime,” says Canton’s Mayor Zeb Smathers. “We are ecstatic about using this gift of land worth more than $3 million to leverage additional grants and funding sources to create a very special, easily accessible park for Canton, Haywood County, and all of Western North Carolina. This substantial gift presents a unique opportunity to help bring resources into the region. With potential for a new gateway to outdoor recreation, economic development, and continued conservation of our natural landscape, this project is truly a win-win for everyone.”

Environmental design firm Equinox will lead a public input process to help identify the best uses and highest outdoor recreational needs for the area, and the company Elevated Trail Design will help implement features identified by public input into a blend that works well for residents, visitors, the local economy, and conservation. An advisory committee of community members has been assembled to help guide the process, including public input. The public is encouraged to submit initial opinions on park use and design through an online survey now through June 26 at: www.cantonnc.com.

“Haywood County is very grateful to SAHC for their vision and commitment to this project,” said David Francis, Haywood Recreation and Economic Development program administrator. “We are particularly excited about the opportunity to leverage this gift for additional funding for park design. The very generous donation of the protected lands by SAHC along with the access to the site from Hwy 19/23 means that we can concentrate our resources on the infrastructure for an outdoor recreation park for our citizens and visitors alike.”

Most of the funds for the land purchase are provided by grants from the CWMTF, the NC Attorney General’s Office’s Environmental Enhancement Grant Program, The Pigeon River Fund of The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, a generous gift from Brad and Shelli Stanback, and a partial donation of land value from the landowner.

The Conservation Fund provided a bridge loan to SAHC to enable it to close on the purchase before all of the grant funds have been administered, and before SAHC raises about $300,000 still needed for the transaction. SAHC is actively fundraising for that $300,000 in order to re-pay the loan from The Conservation Fund and be able to transfer the land to the Town. More info at Appalachian.org.

“This property is a beloved mark in the landscape with a lot of history, and many people from Haywood County have enjoyed experiences on the land over the years,” adds Muerdter. “We’re glad that people will still get to enjoy being on the tract in the near future. National conservation trends have been moving towards projects that are innovative, evolving to serve people and nature in unique ways. We’re excited about the opportunity of this project as a local example of this national trend – protecting the landscape while engaging people in recreation and activating the economy.”

Prepared by Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.