The coming new year will mark the fifteenth anniversary of a most significant gift to residents and visitors of Henderson County. A decade and a half ago, one couple’s adoration for the mountains and the natural world was so deep that they wanted it to last forever. And they did not want to keep it to just themselves.
“That land just spoke to my dad,” said Cheryl Florence Pratt about the secluded forest and clear mountain streams on the south slopes of Little Pisgah Mountain. “It was what mattered most to him.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. Tom Florence, a urologist from Atlanta, and wife Glenna began acquiring wooded property near the community of Gerton in the northeast corner of the county.
For more than a decade, the couple would make the drive from Georgia on weekends with Pratt and her brother and sister, Michael and Camille, to relish in their land’s natural beauty.
When Dr. Florence retired in the early 1980s, he and Glenna built a house on the property and made it their home for the next 20 years.
“Both my mom and dad were so passionate about that land,” said Pratt. “They hiked every inch of it. They walked it every day. They gardened it every day.”
Tom and Glenna were persistent about fostering, and often restoring, the natural flora and fauna on their land.
“They went to UNC-Asheville and purchased blight-resistant chestnut and dogwood trees. Then they would go out in the middle of the forest and plant them,” Pratt recalled.
On several occasions, the Florences hosted walks for the WNC Botanical Club on their property. Club member and botanist Anne Ulinksi, who had recently helped establish a local land trust, reached out to the couple to tell them about the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC).
Observing its cascading streams and impressive rock outcroppings, Ulinksi could tell that the property was teeming with natural heritage. Rare species like the Blue Ridge grey cheeked salamander, crevice salamander and others call it home. So do pink and yellow ladyslipper wildflowers of which the Florences were particularly fond.
The land also hosts a plethora of unusual habitats and natural communities that likely harbor more uncommon plants and animals, enough so that the property was designated a significant natural heritage area by the North Carolina’s Natural Heritage Program.
So important to the Florences was the land — and that it remain in its natural condition that they knew and loved — that the couple made the extraordinary decision to donate nearly their entire property to CMLC.
They gave half of their interest in the property to the land trust in 1996 and bestowed the remainder five years later. In total, the Florences gifted a tract totaling a massive 600 acres.
“I am so grateful that they gave it to CMLC,” said Pratt, who spent memorable times during her childhood on the property and has returned frequently as an adult. “I am still just thrilled.”
Under CMLC’s ownership, the property would be perpetually monitored and managed to maintain — and improve — its abundant natural heritage. Most important to the Florences, under CMLC’s care it would never be developed with new roads, homes, or buildings, thus protecting the flora and fauna that call it home. Its scenic character among region’s cherished landscape would also remain forever intact.
“Its natural state is its best state,” Dr. Florence told the Times-News in 2001 when the conservation project was completed. “I did not wish for any development to occur on it. I wanted it preserved like it is.”
CMLC named the tract the Florence Nature Preserve in honor of the couple who so generously protected it forever. In addition to conserving its natural resources, the land trust manages it for public access. Visitors are invited to explore the preserve and walk its nearly five miles of hiking trails comprised of old logging and farm roads as well as some paths cut by the Florences.
Trails access numerous scenic destinations within the preserve, including a stunning vista from a rock outcropping ominously named Rattlesnake Knob. The Florence Nature Preserve can be accessed from the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trailhead, a Henderson County park managed in partnership with CMLC. The trailhead is located on Highway 74A one mile east of Gerton.
“They wanted people to be able to hike that land and be able to bring their kids and grandkids to show them something as nature intended it, not paved or built up,” said Pratt. “It is just a beautiful piece of property and I am so pleased that people can go there to enjoy it like my parents did.”
But the impact of the Florences’ land donation proved to be not just the protection of several hundred acres of mountain land and the creation of a public nature preserve.
“It was a jump starter for other people protecting their land in that community,” explained Pratt. The Florences’ gift of conservation and trails inspired — and continue to inspire — other landowners in the Hickory Nut Gorge to both conserve their property and enable hiking access to visitors.
Since the Florences’ selfless contribution in 2001, other landowners have partnered with CMLC to forever protect more than 300 additional acres in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge surrounding Gerton and nearly 1,000 acres in total throughout the length of the Hickory Nut Gorge.
And since the opening of the trails to the public within the Preserve, partnerships between CMLC and neighboring landowners have also made possible the construction of six new miles of public hiking trails and the creation of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail loop. The trail loop links the Florence Nature Preserve to nearby conserved lands with sought-out hiking destinations like Bearwallow Mountain, Little Bearwallow Falls, and Blue Ridge Pastures.
“My parents would be so tickled to know that their land was now part of bigger network of trails. If they were still with us, they’d be hiking every mile of them,” Pratt said.
Dr. Florence passed away at the age of 89 in 2010 and Glenna at the age of 90 just last year. Pratt and her siblings returned to the Florence Nature Preserve to spread the ashes of their parents on the land that was most sacred to them.
“I like to think that their spirits are wondering around those trails and just being so happy to see people hiking there enjoying that land," Pratt said. "That’s what they wanted.”
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.