With the help of a conservation buyer, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and the U.S. Forest Service seal a decade-long effort to protect a critical piece of Pisgah National Forest.
The trees are still mostly bare except for thickets of rhododendron adding dense green along the Mills River’s North Fork just inside Pisgah National Forest. The landscape’s hue is the drab greyish brown of late winter, but the creeks whisper the promise of spring as anglers wade into the clear, chilly waters, hoping to snag a feisty rainbow or brown trout.
As winter segues into spring and rhododendron buds burst into pink glory, the anglers will continue to fish the rocky riffles and placid pools. Families will spread picnics on the concrete tables of the North Mills River Recreation Area, as they have for generations. Mountain bikers will pedal their way up and glide breezily down the recently rerouted Trace Ridge Trail between the campground and the miles of multi-use trails upstream.
Anglers, bikers, equestrians, hikers and families no longer need to worry about the fate of an island of private property next to the campground. The land, once threatened with development, is permanently protected now, and the public guaranteed access to the surrounding forest, thanks to a deal closed last year by CMLC, U.S. Forest Service and a cooperating private landowner.
It’s been exactly 10 years since a developer bought the historic Big Creek Lodge property inside Pisgah National Forest and announced plans to build up to 86 homes on these 84 acres. The plans alarmed the public who feared their longtime access to the land would be gated off – and that a subdivision would be built adjacent to the campground, muddying the trout stream that runs through it and destroying the area’s unspoiled character.
Thanks to CMLC and its conservation partners, 78 acres of this former inholding is part of Pisgah National Forest. It will be permanently protected for public enjoyment, guaranteeing a key access point to prized trout streams and trails. How it happened is a story involving a century-old historic home, a convicted swindler, an aborted development, and organizations that worked tirelessly for years to conserve the tract.
Big Creek Lodge, also known as the M.M. Stuart Home, is a two-story frame house with a trout pond in its front yard where the Rocky Fork tumbles into the Mills River’s North Fork. In 1899, George Vanderbilt, the railroad magnate who owned much of what today comprises Pisgah National Forest, sold 11 acres here to Melvin Stuart for $44, according to “Gun Fights, Dam Sites & Water Rights,” a history of the area written by James E. Brittain. Stuart operated a sawmill and lived his life here. He is buried along with many relatives in the nearby Maple Grove Cemetery.
During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps established a work camp and built North Mills River Recreation Area as part of a New Deal work project. The campground and picnic area opened in the summer of 1938. The adjacent Stuart Home and surrounding acreage remained in private hands.
In January 2001, Candler tomato farmers Robert and Viki Warren bought Big Creek Lodge and 84 surrounding acres for $875,000, according to records filed at Henderson County Register of Deeds. The Warrens owned the property until July 2004 when they pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to a scheme to defraud the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. out of millions of dollars.
The property was auctioned along with other Warren holdings later that month. CMLC tried at the time to find a conservation buyer for the property. But Kent Smith, a real estate investor from Taylors, S.C., won a bidding duel with another potential buyer, landing the lodge tract for $2,175,000.
In 2007, Smith submitted plans to Henderson County to build as many as 86 homes on the 84 acres. But he withdrew plans to build the subdivision after county planning staff said the project would violate several county ordinances and be incompatible with the county’s 2020 comprehensive plan. That came after the public deluged the county with calls of concern about the fate of the property.
For the U.S. Forest Service to acquire the land to add to Pisgah National Forest, an intermediary needed to buy and hold it until funding became available. That’s where CMLC, Trout Unlimited (TU) and a conservation-minded benefactor made the difference.
In 2009, Tom Oreck of Asheville purchased the Big Creek Lodge tract and began working with CMLC and TU on conservation plans. Oreck learned about the property and its previous close call with development from John Witherspoon of Conservation Advisors and Platt Architecture in Brevard. CMLC was aware that development plans at the tract had stalled and had reached out to Witherspoon for assistance finding a cooperative buyer willing to step in and work toward a conservation outcome.
“The previous owner had intended to develop the property which I understand from Trout Unlimited as well as CMLC would have pretty much destroyed that river as a trout fishing river,” Oreck said. “So John brought it to my attention, and working with CMLC and Trout Unlimited wanted to know if I would get involved. The property was going to be going in foreclosure and the hope was to get the bulk of the land into the national forest so it would be protected for perpetuity.”
In 2012 he signed an option to purchase contract with the groups. This was the second local conservation project Oreck made possible – in 2011 he bought 65 acres that later became part of DuPont State Recreational Forest.
The groups and their supporters, meanwhile, advocated for the Forest Service to acquire the property using funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Funded through fees gas and oil companies pay the government for offshore drilling, LWCF is a federal program to conserve irreplaceable lands and improve outdoor recreation opportunities throughout the nation.
Of course the most critical piece of the puzzle was coming up with $1.56 million in federal funding to purchase the land at its appraised fair market value. This is where the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), and support for the fund from Western North Carolina’s Congressional delegation, made the difference. Both Congressman Mark Meadows and Senator Richard Burr have been champions of LWCF.
“When I hear about the good work of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, it drives me to fight even harder to ensure that Congress makes good on the promise to make this fund permanent,” U.S. Sen. Richard Burr said. “And naturally, I’m ecstatic when North Carolina groups can leverage this popular and important program for preserving our natural heritage.”
“Preserving North Carolina’s one of a kind natural treasures is one of the most important promises we can keep, and each year in North Carolina, the LWCF helps local communities preserve land like this for future generations,” Burr added. “I’m proud to be an avid defender of the LWCF in the Senate, because it helps all of us more fully enjoy our great state.”
In June 2015, CMLC purchased 56.28 acres of the Big Creek Lodge tract and immediately sold it to the Forest Service for $970,000. Then last July CMLC bought 21.71 acres and sold it to the Forest Service for $590,000. All the funds were provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund through appropriations to the U.S. Forest Service, CMLC Executive Director Kieran Roe said.
As is often the case in conserving land, the deal required patience and the support and cooperation of numerous partners. For instance, in 2012 TU raised $30,000 and provided it to CMLC to enable the organization to purchase the option on the property from Oreck.
“This option gave us time to work with USFS staff to seek the LWCF funds, which are appropriated annually to federal agencies,” Roe said. “Due to other USFS priorities in North Carolina and elsewhere, initial funding for a purchase at Big Creek Lodge was not available until 2015. The acquisition was broken into two phases, as funding was insufficient to enable purchase of the entire property at once.”
“Conserving this threatened treasure was important to the public and CMLC and TU were instrumental in making that happen,” said Allen Nicholas, Forest Supervisor of the National Forests in North Carolina. “It’s a great example of what we can do when we all work together towards our common goals of providing access to public lands and ensuring healthy watersheds.”
Another issue was that the Forest Service was not interested in owning an historic structure like the Big Creek Lodge.
“Early on we began to understand the Forest Service is not interested in owning structures,” Roe said. “Tom Oreck who acquired it to be a helpful partner began to enjoy having that house as a family getaway and decided he would keep it.”
As for Oreck, what compelled him to step in and assume the critical intermediary role in this 10-year saga?
“It was very simple,” he said. “I had been living in Asheville for five or six years and Asheville was the first place I ever moved not for business, but because it was where I wanted to live.”
Oreck said he and his family were attracted to the area by Asheville’s vibrant arts community and Western North Carolina’s gorgeous natural environment. Helping preserve a little bit of this paradise “was something I could do….to procure this property for future generations and to protect the river for sportsmen.”
He also got involved because he wanted to help protect public access via the campground to the surrounding public lands for horseback riders, anglers, hikers, bikers and everyone who uses the land. Both Yellow Gap Road, which runs from the North Mills River Recreation Area to the Pink Beds/Cradle of Forestry area, and an old road bed running upstream along the North Fork, had access issues tied to the land. If the property had been developed, both could have been gated off, Oreck said, “So one of the first things we did was give perpetuity access to the Forest Service.”
Oreck says he is looking forward to spending time at the historic lodge with his four children, who range in age from 11 to 42, and two grandkids, ages 4 and 6. And though he is not a trout fisherman himself, he’s willing to learn.
“Trout Unlimited has offered to teach me how to fly fish,” he says.