Imagine you’re out on a hike—let’s say you’re on one of the trails that begin along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The forest that surrounds you is public land, a National Forest that has been preserved as a natural habitat for plants and animals so that people like yourself can enjoy the innumerable benefits of the wilderness.
Emerging from the woods onto a high mountain vista, you suddenly find yourself enveloped in a panoramic view of rippling mountain ranges, unadulterated by any sign of human activity. No houses, no roads, no condominiums or hotels. This soaring view of absolute pristine wilderness did not happen by happy accident. In fact, preserving such vistas—ones that define the landscape of Western Carolina—takes a great deal of work, foresight, community partnership, and advocacy.
The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy is an Asheville-based conservation trust that has been working for the over four decades to preserve land in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. To date, it has managed to conserve nearly 70,000 acres, including farms, forests, watersheds, and great swaths of the Southern Appalachians. Much of that wilderness, including the Roan Highlands, Mt. Mitchell State Park and the fringes of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, are areas of public recreation that provide outdoor enthusiasts like ourselves with so much joy, solace, and adventure.
Try and imagine what 70,000 acres of land looks like. Imagine the rivers that run through it and the ghost towns that remain, crumbling in mountain hollers. Imagine the grassy balds and high-altitude forests, and all the different ecosystems that exist within them. Picture the species that thrive within these ecosystems, including many rare animals and fragile plants: The golden-winged warbler, the northern saw-whet owl, the Gray’s Lily, and the brilliant magenta blooms of Catawba rhododendron. Consider the farms, such as Hickory Nut Gap Farm and Flying Cloud Farm, both of which have been preserved under permanent conservation easement by SAHC, and they both continue to provide food for our restaurants and farmers markets.
Now imagine it all gone: lost to sprawl, hotels, condominiums, parking lots. This is why we need organizations like the SAHC.
The economic and developmental growth of a region is not mutually exclusive to land conservation—in fact, it’s just the opposite. “We're not anti-development,” says Pauline Hayne, donations relations manager for the SAHC. “We just want smart development.”
Western Carolina is becoming an increasingly popular destination not only to visit, but to live. The SAHC is working to ensure the region continues to grow and thrive, without destroying what drew people to the area: the pristine natural environment.
Beyond the beauty and benefits of nature for nature’s sake, the landscape of Western North Carolina is one of the region’s premier drivers for economic activity, as a world-class destination for outdoor activities, adventure tourism, and the tranquility of the mountains. “Once that ecosystem is destroyed, you can’t replace it—it’s gone for good,” Hayne says. “Securing our natural heritage makes excellent economic sense.”
The SAHC works to protect property by putting it under conservation easement—a legal protection that lasts forever. For families who are deeply connected to the land they have owned for generations, this protection provides enormous peace of mind. After acquiring the property, the SAHC becomes the steward of the land, clearing out invasive species, removing debris, and ensuring that no construction occurs. They strive to help forge the vital and precious connection between individuals and nature, leading group hikes, and offering free educational workshops and presentations.
The monumental task of preserving wilderness cannot be accomplished alone. The SAHC works in tandem with local Asheville businesses who help to map, survey, and appraise land, as well as raise money and increase awareness. One example of such community engagement is the partnership with Highland Brewing (suitably titled For the Love of Beer and Mountains.) Highland donates a percentage of sales from each seasonal release party to SAHC, and opens up their brewery for SAHC educational events. Every seasonal brew is named for a local landmark or native species, like Cold Mountain Winter Ale and the Saw-whet Saison.
A drastic cut in funding on both the state and federal level are leaving organizations such as the SACH with an ever-decreasing budget. Visit appalachian.org to see how you can do your part to help the cause, either by donating time or money, taking your family on a SACH-guided hike, or throwing back a pint of Lost Cove Kolsch.
“What I’ve learned by working here is that every piece of land tells a story,” Hayne says. Let’s work to ensure that the Southern Appalachians can tell its stories for generations to come.