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Headwaters land a key link in 'corridor of conservation'

Hidden Falls will be hidden no more once the public gets access to Headwaters State Forest in Transylvania County. Hidden Falls will be hidden no more once the public gets access to Headwaters State Forest in Transylvania County.

BREVARD — Six years ago, Kieran Roe got a call from a real estate agent in Transylvania County inviting him to lunch. Roe, executive director of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, had no idea then that the meeting would lead to one of the conservancy’s most important preservation agreements.

“A colleague from CMLC and I sat down and we were amazed to hear him say that Congressman Taylor was interested in finding out about selling his land for conservation,” Roe said.
That lunch led eventually to the land conservancy’s work with Charles Taylor and his family to acquire the land on the East Fork of the French Broad River and preserve it for public access as North Carolina’s 10th state forest.
A banker, developer and forester who served eight terms in Congress, Taylor was known derisively in the environmental community as “chainsaw Charlie.” But Taylor has long had an interest in conservation. And in the East Fork property, the state of North Carolina will soon own an important link in the middle of an immense territory of national forests and parks, gamelands and other preserved public property.
“We had been looking at this largest tract in our service area for many many years and have been noting certain things about it,” Roe said last week during a presentation at the Transylvania County library. “The water coming off this East Fork tract is very high quality, similar to the water coming off the national forests. That always made it a high priority for us.”
As important is the strategic location — 8,000 acres of mountain country crisscrossed by 50 miles of roads, thick with both pine and hardwood forests and dotted with 25 waterfalls. One of Roe’s slides shows 13 parcels of land surrounding the Taylor tract and covering an astonishing 1.22 million acres from the Nantahala National Forest to DuPont.
“These are all properties that are in public ownership or are publicly protected,” he said. The Taylor land is a key addition to the “corridor of conversation. We were overjoyed when Charles Taylor got in touch.”

Rich history

The Taylor tract has a rich history.
“For over 125 years, the property has only had four owners, which is unusual in itself, especially in the mountains where the pattern has been that the property is subdivided more and more as time goes on,” Roe said. “Each of the four owners has actually added land at each stage so it’s become a bigger piece, enabling, fortunately for all of us, the protection of what is now somewhere close to 8,000 acres. It’s a very rare opportunity. It’s by far the largest privately owned tract of land in the region.”
In the late 1800s, the land was owned by Joseph Silversteen, an important Transylvania County business leader. He founded the Toxaway Tanning Co. in the late 1800s, using chestnut and the bark of chestnut oak as raw materials.
Before the meeting with the land conservancy, Taylor and his wife talked about the use of the land.
“They looked at logging it off, selling it for development,” Roe said. “They had conversations with their three sons and they decided that the preferred route was conservation, and they talked about a gift sale, which is what we’ve been able to work on. That was the decision they made as family.”
The land purchase is taking place in a collaboration of the CMLC, the Conservation Fund of North Carolina and the North Carolina Forest Service, a part of the state Department of Agriculture.
“The size of this property indicated the need to find an eventual public owner,” Roe said. The Division of Forestry was a fitting partner, Roe said, because it manages DuPont State Recreation Forest.
“We were confident that they are going to be a great steward of this property once it is fully acquired,” Roe said.

Hunting and fishing

So far the partnership has completed the purchase of about 5,400 acres, using nine different grants. No state tax money has been spent.
The property is off limits to the public except for the Foothills Trail, which runs across the top of a ridge. The property was protected when the Conservation Fund bought a 786-acre parcel and saved the last unprotected part of the Foothills National Recreational Trail connecting Table Rock and Oconee state parks.
MichaelCheek 2Michael CheekThere is a lot of work to do before the forest can be opened to visitors, said Michael Cheek, a regional state forester who is the forest division’s lead official for the new state forest project.
“What we are going to do is take inventory to develop management plan,” Cheek said. “I don’t want to open it up until we have a plan for how we’re going to deal with the public and recreation, hunting and all these different user groups. First is acquisition, second is a management plan, third is open it up to the public.”
“It will be open to the full hunting season,” Cheek said. “Basically it will be like regular gamelands, wide open to the public for hunting. … We have 50 miles of road out there and they need work. They need stabilization.”
Although the Forest Service will allow recreation, Cheek said Headwaters State Forest will be unlike DuPont.
“The way I describe it is dispersed recreation,” he said. “Let’s get 10- or 15-car parking lots scattered across the property so we can only have so many people in different areas. It’s going to be different user groups than DuPont. DuPont’s a little more easy. This is a lot rougher. We may not have those daily users that walk in and walk right out. We’ll see. A lot of this is learn as you go.”
People in the audience wanted to know how long it will be before the new forest and its 25 waterfalls is open to the public. Not until the end of 2016, Cheek predicted, and that depends on the conservation groups’ ability to acquire all the land.