Perhaps no other time of the year in Western North Carolina do we so adore our mountains.

At long last, the cold, dreary days give way to warm sunshine that illuminates their verdant slopes. The snow and ice melt to fill their streams and rivers with pristine water that nourishes our farms and tempts us to cast a line or grab a paddle. Their bounty of wildflowers erupt with color from the forest floor, curing our winter doldrums. 

Spring in the southern Appalachians is worth getting excited about because its mesmerizing and transfixing beauty is so apparent. But as we revel in the natural splendor of our region this season, something less obvious is also worth getting excited about: that so much of it will remain just how we love it most. 

Each year, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) — with the help of government partners, dedicated landowners, and generous supporters — strives to protect and preserve our region's precious natural resources to forever keep intact what gives our land meaning and life.

 In 2015, 1,518 more acres of precious mountains — hosting lush forests, clean water, unique plants and animals, and spellbinding scenery — were forever conserved, ensuring they remain as they are now, and how they have always been. 

With that, just 21 years since its founding, CMLC has passed the significant milestone of conserving 30,000 acres of our local, natural treasures. And they’re all for you, and thanks to you. 

This year in particular, it is more exciting than ever to tell you about all that has been protected in the last year, among these special mountains that we call home.

Burnt Mountain

Transylvania County

What this one acre next to DuPont State Recreational Forest lacks in size, it makes up for in potential impact. The Bresnahan family of Cedar Mountain donated this tract to CMLC to help bolster the establishment of a section of the Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge in Transylvania County by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. USFWS will now seek to acquire up to 3,800 nearby acres that host ever-vanishing southern Appalachian mountain bogs. 

One of the nation's rarest and most imperiled habitats, mountain bogs are hotspots for biodiversity containing numerous rare plant and animal species. They also possess a natural capacity for regulating water flow, holding floodwaters like giant sponges, then slowly releasing the water to minimize the effects of droughts and floods. 

Conservation of the small tract also preserves the views from DuPont’s popular Burnt Mountain Trail and Cascade Lake Road, as well as habitat for rare green salamanders. 

Big Creek Lodge

Henderson County

Pisgah National Forest just got bigger — by 56 acres — with the acquisition of the first phase of the Big Creek Lodge project, a private inholding previously slated for private development. 

Trout Unlimited, U.S. Forest Service and CMLC partnered to conserve this threatened “hole” in the forest containing the North Mills River, a blue ribbon trout stream coveted among fly anglers. Protecting the tract will safeguard the source of clean drinking water for more than 50,000 households in Henderson and southern Buncombe counties.

Despite this good news, this project is only half complete. Partners will continue their work to purchase the remainder of the inholding — 28 more acres — that if left unprotected, could sully the clear water and verdant forests of the project. 

Community of Transfiguration

Henderson County

In partnership with the Community for the Transfiguration — an order of Episcopal nuns — 409 acres were conserved in Bat Cave, of which 368 acres were purchased by CMLC to host the future Hickory Nut Gorge Teaching and Research Reserve. The unspoiled landscape will soon serve as an outdoor classroom and laboratory for local universities, schools, and agencies to widely benefit our region. 

Teeming with picturesque waterfalls, majestic hemlocks, and a variation of green salamander which may soon be classified as a new, distinct specie, the now protected property also contains more than a mile of the scenic Rocky Broad River.

Sky Valley

Henderson County

This newly conserved 19-acre gem near the Henderson-Transylvania County line harbors an intact, mature mixed hardwood and conifer forest as well as a portion of Shoal Creek, home to brook trout. The land was generously donated by Susan Dunkel of Sebring, Florida, and an anonymous local landowner. It may soon become part of DuPont State Recreational Forest, which it presently borders on two of its sides.

Headwaters State Forest

Transylvania County

The continued partnership of N.C. Forest Service, The Conservation Fund, and CMLC made more headway at Headwaters State Forest last year, growing it by 787 acres. Headwaters, North Carolina’s newest state forest and host to one of the primary sources of the French Broad River, now consists of just shy of 5,000 acres of publicly owned and protected land. Partners are striving to add 3,000 more acres to complete the project in the coming years.

Mouth of Mud Creek

Henderson County

The confluence of Mud Creek where it empties into the French Broad River has long suffered from erosion that — as its name suggests — has muddied our mountain waters. With the protection of 101 acres where stream meets river, the federally endangered Appalachian elktoe muscle as well as the elusive musky, highly sought by anglers, may better thrive in cleaner waters.

CMLC is partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and N.C .Wildlife Resources Commission to restore the property’s original wetlands and natural hydrology.

French Broad Paddle Trail Stop

Henderson County

While not a traditional path through our mountains, did you know that the French Broad River is designated as a State Recreational Trail? This one-acre tract in Etowah was acquired by CMLC to potentially serve as an overnight camping spot for paddlers floating down this “blueway.” Protecting land alongside the river will also ensure its banks remain naturally vegetated, forever benefiting its water quality.

Baird Mountain

Buncombe County

Your local land trust typically conserves the mountains of Henderson, Transylvania, and parts of Rutherford and Polk counties, but occasionally reaches north to Buncombe County when a natural treasure is especially worthy of protection. That was the case with 50 acres on Baird Mountain, which forms part of the scenic backdrop of Asheville.

Preserving part of this mountain will ensure it forever retains its forest that provides habitat for grouse and several rare plants and always keep headwater streams of Herron Creek clear and clean.

Happy Hollow

Transylvania County

Regardless of whether or not you venture into our region’s natural lands by foot or boat, you have undoubtedly explored its scenic treasures by automobile. Some of WNC’s thoroughfares so abundantly showcase inspiring vistas and charming scenery that they receive federal or state designation as a “Scenic Byway.”

To preserve the gorgeous scenery from the stunning Whitewater Scenic Byway south of Sapphire, the Mockridge family of Brevard and CMLC partnered to forever protect 35 acres visible from N.C. Highway 281. This conservation easement will also keep clean the waters of mountain streams flowing into Corbin Creek before they careen over picturesque Lower Whitewater Falls.

Ruth Jones Farm

Transylvania County

Ruth Elaine Jones, a lifelong Cedar Mountain resident and career Transylvania County health educator, tragically passed away in 2011 but not without leaving an enduring legacy that will forever benefit our region. Jones bequeathed her pastoral mountain farm to CMLC to forever preserve its rural character and natural heritage that she held dear throughout her life. Permanent conservation of the farm was completed in 2015, honoring Ruth’s generosity to the community and love for our mountains.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at

I have never known an individual as sincere and genuine as Kayah. I think that may be because no one has ever been so personally fulfilled by the combination of the outdoors, friendships, and a devotion to others.

No singular story — and certainly not this column — could ever fully do justice in portraying the person that Kayah was. Its scope — her love for this region, the depth of the relationships she held, and her selflessness to her friends, her children, and her favorite wild places — is simply too vast.

In December, my dear friend Jennifer “Kayah” Gaydish was killed in a rock-climbing accident in the Hidden Valley Lake area in southwest Virginia. She was climbing in a landscape that she — like she had for so many others — helped protect. She was 36.

Kayah was many things to many people. She was a devoted mother, a caring friend, a passionate conservationist, a defender of wilderness, a builder and maintainer of trails, and a voracious rock climber.

In every way, she made this region, and all those who knew her, better. If you did not know Kayah, I hope you will read on and get to know her.

I first met Kayah in 2011 when she began volunteering with the Carolina Mountain Club (CMC), a regional hiking and trail organization. The CMC was helping build the Bearwallow Mountain Trail, a new hiking path being constructed by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC), who had recently protected the mountain's scenic summit.

She instantly impressed me with an uncommon combination of vigorous work ethic, humility, and patience for others. Naturally, personalities among folks who are swinging tools, flinging dirt, and hoisting big rocks — all in a coordinated effort to build a trail — can initially come across as a little intense, if not aggressive.

But Kayah, working just as hard as any other volunteer, exuded a calming warm-heartedness. From the beginning, she made me — like she did for many others — feel entirely comfortable when she was around.

As we constructed more trails together, we soon realized a common bond: an adoration for the outdoors — particularly the most rugged, wild places among the southern Appalachians — and a yearning to care for and protect them.

“I love stewardship of public lands,” Kayah told me shortly after I met her. And it always showed.

She evolved into an advanced trail builder, becoming a master at the grip hoist — a cable tool used to pull stumps from the ground — and honed her rock skills in order to skillfully construct stone staircases.

Kayah put her devotion to stewardship and love of the outdoors directly into the land as often as possible. In addition to the CMC, she also volunteered frequently with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) maintaining several sections of the "AT."

Her dedication to that venerable long-distance trail was so apparent that she was hired on to staff by the organization that protects it. She worked part-time in the ATC's Southern Regional Office in Asheville, first for a summer coordinating the base camp for trail rehabilitation crews and then for almost two years as office manager.

Kayah also volunteered her trail-building skills with Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS), constructing a new trail to the popular summit of Hawksbill Mountain.

This experience, combined with her avid interest in rock climbing, led her to fall in love with the Linville Gorge Wilderness. She ultimately worked for nearly two years as a wilderness ranger with Wild South, inventorying and eradicating invasive species threatening the biodiversity of the Linville Gorge.

In addition to the Appalachian Trail and Linville Gorge, Kayah's other — and perhaps most — cherished landscape was the Hickory Nut Gorge.

A resident of Bat Cave for many years, she had long sought out the majestic views from Bearwallow Mountain and Blue Rock, two of her favorite destinations in the Gorge. These places inspired and rejuvenated her in good times, and in bad. And her interest in rock climbing increasingly lured her to the Gorge's towering cliffs.

Just like in her other beloved landscapes, she tirelessly devoted herself to caring for the land and trails in the Hickory Nut Gorge.

Over three years, Kayah donated more than 125 volunteer hours to CMLC's trails projects in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge, including the Bearwallow Mountain, Florence Nature Preserve, and Trombatore trails, eagerly contributing her time and energy to building a trail network that linked conserved lands.

Her passion for the Hickory Nut Gorge extended its entire length — from the Upper Gorge all the way to Chimney Rock.

“She was the first volunteer to approach me,” said James Ledgerwood, who became superintendent of Chimney Rock State Park in 2013. “She told me 'Hey, I'm here. What can I do to help?' It really caught me off guard that someone was so willing to give their time, and to constantly keep asking what help I needed.”

Kayah aided Ledgerwood extensively in the development of new sustainable trail at the base of the cliffs on Rumbling Bald, an increasingly popular rock-climbing and bouldering destination within the park.

“She helped me lay out the trail, letting me know where climbers would want it to go,” said Ledgerwood. “Then she was the first volunteer crew leader on the project, and kept coming back again and again. She built rock stairs, spread gravel, cleared corridor with a chainsaw, built fences — you name it.”

Kayah helped Ledgerwood take the project all the way from start to finish over a three-year period. Work was completed on the entire Rumbling Bald loop trail — which accesses the popular “East Side” and “West Side” areas sought by climbers — just this December. And Kayah was there, volunteering as usual. The project was completed only a few days prior to her death.

“She may be gone now, but her work in the Hickory Nut Gorge is not done,” said Ledgerwood. “I can see it in all of our volunteers and in every person who cared about her. They'll continue to pursue here what was important to her.”

Kayah left an indelible impact on the Hickory Nut Gorge, Appalachian Trail, Linville Gorge, and other cherished wild places of our region. But she left an even deeper impact on the people in her life.

Kayah was the dearest of friend to seemingly countless souls. “She'd give you the shirt off her back, and everyone who knows her knows that to be true,” said her mother, Ann Kendall.

“Hey friend. Just wanted to let you know that I was thinking about you. Wanna hike soon?” Kayah thoughtfully wrote to me during a time period in which I was struggling. While you could count on Kayah to be there for the wild places and the trails, you could doubly count on her to be by your side when you needed her friendship.

Most of all, Kayah was an endlessly devoted mother to her two teenage children, Caleb and River. She gracefully instilled in them the values that she held dear, and frequently brought them along to volunteer projects to build trail with her, side by side.

For the rest of my life, I will be inspired by Kayah's compassion, sincerity, and love for our mountains. In my last conversation with her, less than a week before she unexpectedly left us, I told her something that I had always felt: “Kayah, you're my hero.”

Even though now she is gone, I hope she will be yours, too.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at

“Everybody else was playing ball,” said Nate Ward of he and his brother when they were kids. “Fletch and I were out in the woods. We could go through the woods better than anybody.”

While the brothers occasionally enjoyed hunting squirrels, their outings were mostly focused on simply exploring and being out in the nature. “He was most happy just spending the day walking around outdoors,” said Nate.

Fletcher “Fletch” Ward — who last April passed away at the age of 67 — was a lifelong resident of Western North Carolina. He and Nate grew up in Arden, and the mountains were calling him from the beginning.

“He wasn’t outgoing. He was definitely an introvert,” said Nate’s wife, Susan Ward.

Though quiet and independent, Fletch was a man of devotion. It was what defined his character.

Fletch was devoted to his country, serving in the U.S. Air Force. His three and a half years spent at a base in North Dakota during his 20s had him longing to return to the mountains and forests of North Carolina. It also instilled in him a strong work ethic.

“Spend four years up there, and you get tough,” said Nate, who himself was in the Air Force stationed at a nearby base in the same region.

Fletch was devoted to his family. While he didn’t marry or have children, he visited his mother every day until her death. He visited Nate and Susan almost every weekend.

He loved NASCAR, and for decades he cheered faithfully for Dale Earnhardt. He and Nate would travel across the state to watch races, enjoying a good time at the track drinking beer and barbecuing on a large charcoal grill.

Fletch was fervently devoted to his job, working tirelessly as an employee of the Asheville Regional Airport for 31 years. During that span, all who flew in and out of Asheville in part had Fletch to thank.

“He set a standard of consistent excellence for all to follow,” according to a commendation statement from the Airport Authority.

Wearing multiple hats, including property manager and facilities and maintenance, Fletch had a hand in most operations that kept the airport running. When snow blanketed the runaway, it was Fletch who manned the blower to clear it.

“Fletch was versatile employee,” the Airport Authority's statement observed. “His duties would take him from the most remote spot on the airfield to the most crowded point in the terminal. He accommodated the needs of everyone.”

So devoted to his work was Fletch that during his career he accumulated 3,556 hours of sick leave. To be exact, that amounted to 445 days of accrued time off that he never used. In fact, across three decades, Fletch took just one sick day off of work.

“He liked the airport, and he liked the people there,” said Nate. “And he liked to work. He gave one hundred percent every day.”

And he was especially generous person. Fletch, who also cut grass and did yard work as a side job, was once observed by a stranger while pumping gas at the local Ingles. Asked by a man at the adjacent pump if the lawn equipment in the back of his weathered pickup truck was owned and used by him, Fletch was handed the gift of a hundred dollar bill when he replied affirmatively.

“What’s this for?” Fletch asked the stranger. “I just like to see a man who does hard work,” he replied.

A few days later Fletch deposited the money in his bank account. At the same time, he made a donation for that amount — and more — to a local charity. “He was a good man,” said Nate.

Among all Fletch’s devotions, his passion for the natural world perhaps endured as his strongest. “He would go out in the woods on Saturdays when he was off work,” said Susan. “Nature is where he felt most comfortable. He didn’t have to interact with anyone. It was where he could go to just ‘look.’ ”

Fletch enjoyed several stomping grounds, but perhaps more so than any other place when he sought the outdoors, he was drawn to Bearwallow Mountain.

After all, as a boy he grew up in its shadow in the valley below. And he saw it from the runway, ever present on the horizon, every day during his entire career at the airport. “He loved Bearwallow,” said Susan.

“We started hiking up there 25 or 30 years ago,” Nate said. “That was back when the road wasn’t even paved up the mountain.”

In recent years, the three Wards would hike up to the summit together, lured by the stunning scenery at the top. It was also the place they would take visiting family and friends to show off the beauty of the region that was their home. “We liked to share it,” said Susan.

“It never occurred to us about needing to save it until development started getting close to it a few years ago,” she added. But soon the Wards’ fear — that their favorite destination in nature might be spoiled — turned into gratitude and relief.

“When we learned that the top had been protected by a conservation easement, we were all very happy about it,” Susan said.

Those sentiments were still close in mind upon Fletch’s death when Nate and Susan learned they had the huge responsibility of bestowing Fletch’s estate. They diligently pursued his wishes to donate his means to what he loved most — the natural world.

“Bearwallow was important to him,” said Susan. “And he loved everything in its natural state,” added Nate.

Nate and Susan researched the conservation and trail projects ongoing at Bearwallow Mountain and learned about the efforts of Hendersonville-based Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC).

The Wards ultimately bequeathed Fletch’s life savings — $75,000 — in support of CMLC’s continued work at Bearwallow Mountain.

The substantial gift mirrors Fletch’s personality. “Fletch didn’t talk much,” said Susan. “But when he did, it was important.”

Just like his few chosen words when he was living, the legacy he left for Bearwallow Mountain is important, too.

The funding will be utilized to expand protection of Bearwallow’s natural resources and charming character. CMLC is pursuing protection of an additional 300 acres along the high elevation ridgeline of Bearwallow Mountain in partnership with its compassionate landowners.

Fletch’s bequest will also help extend the hiking trail on Bearwallow, a path that enables visitors to enjoy the mountain and revel in its natural beauty. The summit is most-iconic destination within the budding Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail.

This footpath, being constructed in segments, will eventually make accessible more of Bearwallow Mountain to the public as well as connect it by trail to nearby conserved lands like Little Bearwallow Mountain and CMLC’s Florence Nature Preserve. Once linked, the segments will form a continuous 15-mile loop trail among these protected lands.

Improvements to the public trailhead at Bearwallow Gap will also be supported by Fletch’s legacy. That trailhead serves as the starting point for two of the CMLC trail network’s most popular paths — the Bearwallow Mountain Trail and Trombatore Trail. CMLC seeks to increase parking capacity, enhance entry points to both trails, and improve safety for pedestrians and motorists.

Fletch’s gift appropriately reflects his generous spirit throughout his life, and honors his adoration of the mountain and its natural world that he enjoyed so fervently.

“He was very caring,” said Susan. “Fletch was always someone you could turn to.”

Now forever more at Bearwallow Mountain, you will still be able to turn to Fletch. His devotion will always be there.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at

Please download the current version of Internet Explorer. IE 6 is no longer supported.