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

Ruth Jones’ Cedar Mountain farm is decidedly beautiful. Its forest is charming, the rolling pasture is serene. Its quaint farmhouse, rustic barn, and historic spring house are endearing. In every way, it is just like Ruth.

“She was a kind and gentle person. She never met a stranger and never had an enemy,” said Mark Tooley, a friend of Ruth's since high school. “I wish that you could have known Ruth.”

Ruth Elaine Jones, a Transylvania County native, was a graduate of Brevard High School and UNC Greensboro and a dedicated member of Rocky Hill Baptist Church. She spent her career as a health educator for the county health department — a position she held for more than 30 years. Ruth was a loving daughter to her parents, whom she cared for much of her adult life. By all accounts, she was the sincerest of souls.

“Ruth devoted her life to her church, her community, her friends, and her parents, never asking for or expecting anything in return,” added Tooley. “She always had a smile on her face.”

Ruth passed away in June 2011, leaving us suddenly — and far too early — at the age of 56. It was only four months prior that she discovered she was ill with cancer. Ruth will be missed, but her legacy — and embodiment of her values — will forever live on through the land that she held so dear.

Affinity for the land

Ruth spent almost her entire life on her farm, which undoubtedly shaped the person she became.

She represented at least the fourth generation in her family to live on and tend the southern Transylvania County property.

Ruth was a descendant of the Jones family that includes prominent 19th century western North Carolina road builder Solomon Jones, who, after constructing a road from South Carolina up the steep slopes of Caesars Head continued it to present-day Henderson County.

That century-and-a-half-old road, which still bears his name, crosses through the middle of the family farm. Those who make the drive to enjoy the view from Camp Greenville’s Pretty Place pass over it and can enjoy the scenic qualities of the historic homestead.

“Prior to her passing, we talked a lot about how important land was to her,” said Ruth’s lifelong friend, Beth Carden. “She had an affinity for the land.”

Ruth and Carden were distant cousins and grew up just down the road from each other. Because Ruth was an only child, the pair grew to be like sisters. “We were best of friends. We did everything together,” Carden said.

Carden insists that Ruth’s connection to the land was rooted both in family and their upbringing.

“We grew up in the woods. We did everything outside,” said Carden, who remembers fondly the pair playing on the farm as children. “We learned everything about nature from the land.”

The farm was adjacent to a summer camp, which the girls visited often. They participated alongside the campers — swimming in the lake, making crafts, square dancing, and “doing what campers did,” said Carden.

“We went back to school each year, and kids asked us what we did all summer,” she said. “We told them ‘you’d never understand.’ It was a wonderful growing up.”

Among their adventures and explorations, the duo absorbed plenty of wisdom from their elders. “We grew up picking their brains. You learned by listening and watching. They taught us how to live in the world around us,” Carden said.

“The farm meant a lot to Ruth because it had also been the home of her grandparents, whom she grew up with. Our grandparents’ generation was dependent on the land.”

Ruth’s parents raised cows and hogs on the property, collected eggs from their chickens, and made their own butter — much like her grandparents had done before them. “Part of her affinity for the farm was watching her parents reap from the land to produce food,” Carden said.

“I believe the land plays a significant role in who people become. People who were dependent on it like her family have a love and appreciation for it. That impacts peoples’ lives. It certainly did for Ruth.”

A timeless gift

Following Ruth’s passing, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) learned that she had willed her farm to the organization. The generous gift came as a surprise, as she had not had any prior contact with the land trust.

Her bequest did not come with any instructions. “Ruth didn’t tell anybody what she wanted done with the land. We think she wanted it preserved, so that’s what we tried to do,” said Tooley, also a CMLC board trustee.

An only child, Ruth had no immediate family to interpret her wishes. CMLC sought feedback from the community and spoke with members of her extended family and church, as well as her close friends. Carden, whom Ruth had named as executrix of her estate, provided insightful guidance in surmising Ruth’s wishes for the property.

“Even though she never told anyone, I believe she always had it in the back of her mind to preserve her property as she remembered it,” said Carden.

Hoping to follow the lead of innovative farmland preservation models used by other land trusts around the country, CMLC put out a call for proposals seeking prospective farmers and their ideas for keeping the farm in agricultural production.

The process was intended to provide an opportunity to diminish barriers to farming such as the high cost of land. “We were hoping to help a new farmer get a good start,” said CMLC Assistant Director Rebekah Robinson, who managed the conservation project.

While seeking a new farmer for the property, CMLC also diligently stewarded the land by removing invasive species and maintaining its aging structures, including Ruth’s house. These improvements, as well as a soil study to determine what agriculture may be best suited for the land, preserved the natural resources of the farm and made it more viable for a prospective farmer.

Though the search resulted in several serious inquiries, ultimately CMLC was unable to find a tenant to farm it.

“It wasn’t large enough to be a viable farming enterprise,” said Tooley, adding that its remote location was another obstacle to attracting farmers. “We just couldn’t find the right farmer.”

Bisected by the road, CMLC ultimately decided to sell each side of the farm independently. To honor Ruth’s presumed wishes, conservation easements were placed on the property in conjunction with the sales.

“By limiting the number of structures and alteration of the farm’s natural resources, the easements protect the natural character of the land and its agricultural value — the values believed to be most important to Ruth by those who knew her,” said Robinson.

A lasting legacy

In addition to honoring Ruth, the conservation of her farm will also have enduring positive impacts on the community and region by safeguarding water quality of its mountain stream and springs, and protecting its scenic rural landscape.

Ruth’s lasting legacy will extend beyond her farm, too. A portion of earnings from the sale of the farm will be used to create a scholarship — honoring Ruth’s love of educating children — which will be awarded annually to a graduating senior at Brevard High School.

Proceeds from the property sale, according to Tooley, will make CMLC more sustainable and better able to protect more natural lands cherished by Ruth, as well as be used by the land trust to engage in conservation education and programming in Transylvania County — continuing Ruth’s legacy of education in the community.

Though there was disappointment that a farmer could not be paired with the land and the property sold as a whole, project partners believe that Ruth would still be pleased with the outcome.

“A great deal of time was spent trying to keep the land intact as a farm. CMLC went above and beyond to fulfill what we all believed were Ruth’s wishes for the property,” said Tooley.

“I think she would be happy.”

Tooley hopes that Ruth’s kindness will serve as an example for others to leave their own legacy through land. “I think it will inspire other landowners to protect what is important to them.”

Most of all, both Tooley and Carden are glad that she will be remembered.

“This was something special,” Tooley said. “As a community, let’s not forget what Ruth did.

“Let us always honor and remember her in perpetuity, as we do the land that we conserve.”

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at

With the onset of autumn in Western North Carolina, our mountains will soon enough be missing their vibrant foliage. So, too, will they be missing Howard McDonald.

Few individuals have had such an astonishing impact on WNC’s trails as did Howard McDonald. If you have taken a hike on the Appalachian Trail, walked a path alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway, or climbed to the top of Bearwallow Mountain, he had an impact on you, too.

Howard passed away late last month at the age of 89, but not before leaving our region with a lasting legacy that will better enables us — and generations to come — opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.

I first met Howard in 2010 during the construction of the Bearwallow Mountain Trail. Howard was a member of the Friday Trail Crew from the volunteer-based Carolina Mountain Club (CMC). The CMC partnered with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) to construct what was then the first segment of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail network.

Despite being in his mid-80s, Howard was not deterred by obstacles like steep slopes and frozen ground. Rather in spite of them, his work was of the highest quality — he built good trail that was both functional and attractive.

In the years since, Howard not only taught me much about constructing sustainable trails — paths that last forever if you build them right — he became a role model. He loved his family, he loved the outdoors, and he loved to work hard. And he left this region a better place than when he arrived. He will always be a hero to many, including me.

Born in 1926, Howard was a fourth generation Californian. Growing up, he was especially proud of how his father scrapped to keep a roof over the heads of his family through the Great Depression.

“In my father’s case, it was literally just a roof,” according to John McDonald, Howard’s son. “The house was so small that he and his older brother slept out on the porch.”

Howard developed an interest in ceramics in high school, and following service in World War II in both the European and Pacific campaigns, pursued its study at the University of Washington. There, he earned both his bachelors and master’s degrees in ceramic engineering.

After college he worked for Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane, where he invented a ceramic filter that enabled production of higher quality aluminum.

“Beer and soda cans used to be a lot thicker,” said McDonald. “His filter is a reason why they’re so thin nowadays.” Howard held four patents for the filter.

His career as a ceramic engineer brought him to Hendersonville with the Selee Corporation in 1981. As they did in Washington, Howard and his wife, Josephine, enjoyed hiking among the mountains. They fell in love with the region and decided to remain here after retirement.

Sadly, in 1991, Josephine died of ovarian cancer, devastating Howard.

“Our family was worried that he would become lonely and hide away,” said McDonald. “But then he threw himself into the Carolina Mountain Club. It became his second family”

Howard joined the CMC in 1992 and quickly got involved in trail maintenance and construction. The club maintains 93 miles of the venerable Appalachian Trail (AT). It has also built — and now maintains — 130 miles of the Mountains-To-Sea Trail.

As he did during a career as an engineer, Howard put the work ethic instilled in him by his father into the trails.

“Trail work combined his love of the outdoors and his love of hard work,” said his son.

According to Skip Sheldon, leader of CMC’s Friday Trail Crew with whom Howard most frequently worked, it also incorporated his passion for creating.

“Howard liked to build stuff,” he said. “He always had ambition and energy for any project.”

A skilled woodworker in addition to an engineer, Howard’s talent and passion were even better harnessed by the CMC when it appointed him to the position of “trails facilities manager.” It was a role that he embraced, fervently serving in it for more than a decade.

Howard’s contributions to trails became increasingly practical to those who hiked and camped among them. He led an effort to install bear cables at all 10 trail shelters along CMC’s section of the Appalachian Trail. These devices gave backpackers the ability to safely hang their food high out of reach of animals.

Implementing a new design for privies — or outhouses — at each of the shelters was another of Howard’s practical improvements for the AT. His effort to construct “moldering” privies better enabled human waste to decompose into soil, making the structures more sustainable and reducing the frequency that they need to be moved or replaced.

“He built bridges, too,” said Sheldon. “We used to make them with one or two logs. Howard started building them with three logs, and then he installed hand rails. That makes them much safer for hikers to cross streams. They’re more attractive, too.”

Howard’s contribution of which he was most proud was the construction of the Roaring Fork Shelter, a new three-sided lean-to on the Appalachian Trail near Max Patch.

Fellow crew members were not only impressed with the quality design of Howard’s shelter, but also at his ingenuity at devising a method to lower the thousand-pound logs several hundred feet down the mountainside — all while leaving no trace on the steep slope.

“Whenever there was a problem, Howard would get on it and figure out a solution. He loved a challenge,” said Sheldon.

Howard’s solution to transport the logs was a contraption made of several garden carts tied together, lowered with the aid of a rock-climbing rope. And while gravity aided the logs’ descent, the problem of retrieving the heavy makeshift cart was solved by tying the rope to the bumper of a truck and driving away.

“We did 47 loads on the cart, rebuilding it at least three times in the process. It took us two years,” recalled Sheldon. Howard, with the help of CMC volunteers and Appalachian Trail Conservancy, then spent nearly another year constructing the shelter.

I was honored to build more trails with Howard in recent years, including the Florence Nature Preserve Access Trail and the new Trombatore Trail, two more segments of CMLC’s Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail. One of his final projects was the construction of a wooden stile, a stepladder that enables hikers to safely cross over a barbed wire fence.

All in all, Howard donated more than 8,400 hours of service to WNC’s mountains across three decades — all so that each of us may continue to better experience them.

Said Sheldon, “What he loved the most was to do work where he could put his hands on it and know that it would be there after he was gone.”

While Howard McDonald may be gone, his impact certainly is not. Let’s honor and thank him by going for a walk on the trails — and cherish what he left for us.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at

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