A decade ago, Kieran Roe sealed and stamped an envelope and dropped it in the mail. What he got back proved to be far beyond his expectations.

“I couldn't have fathomed everything that would come from it,” said Roe, executive director of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC). Roe’s envelope contained a grant application to the Corporation for National and Community Service with a proposal to initiate Project Conserve, a new AmeriCorps program in western North Carolina.

“We were still a fledgling land trust. We only had a few staff and we needed help,” recalled Roe.

AmeriCorps was created under President Bill Clinton by the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. The program— often billed as a domestic version of the Peace Corps–engages adults in intensive community service with the goal of helping others and meeting critical community needs.

Members within AmeriCorps commit to part- or full-time public service positions among non-profit community organizations and public agencies. The proposal that Roe submitted was to establish positions to fulfill environmental and conservation needs in the region.

Roe’s application proved successful, and Project Conserve was born, hosting its first members in 2004.

“It started small,” said Project Conserve Director Amy Stout, who was hired to administer the CMLC program in 2008.

“Only ten members made up the first class. But it grew quickly.”

Within only a few years, AmeriCorps Project Conserve hosted more than 30 full-time service members across nearly two dozen organizations in western North Carolina. Each Project Conserve member serves 1,700 total hours over an 11-month term.

“Members receive a small living stipend as well as an education award that can be applied to existing student loans or used to pursue future studies,” said Stout. “The pay isn’t significant, but they’re driven by a burning desire to make a difference in their community.”

Making a difference, in fact, is what has defined the program. Since CMLC initiated Project Conserve a decade ago, nearly 200 AmeriCorps members have completed service terms. Their collective contribution has exceeded an astonishing 410,000 hours of public service to western North Carolina communities.

Currently, Project Conserve places 32 service members at more than 21 different environment and conservation organizations across the region spanning more than 20 counties.

CMLC hosts five Project Conserve members each year. Other host sites include Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Mountain True, Polk County Office of Agricultural Economic Development, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, among others.

“Each AmeriCorps Project Conserve position is unique, but they are united by two long-term goals: to build greater community awareness and support for conservation and to make sustainable improvements to at-risk natural areas in western North Carolina,” said Stout.

Project Conserve takes a holistic approach to conservation by incorporating the interconnected focuses of land conservation, water quality, local food, and energy conservation.

“To support our goals in these areas, Project Conserve positions are centered around key service activities. These include Conservation Education, where members coordinate educational activities for youth and adults designed to increase participants’ awareness of conservation issues, inspire them to get involved further, and build valuable conservation skills,” added Stout.

To date, Project Conserve members have educated more than 45,000 adults and youth about environmental and conservation issues in WNC.

Direct service on rivers, trails and public lands is another goal of the program where service members create and improve publically accessible trails to provide more recreational opportunities for the community. Its AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 5,000 hours of service in support of CMLC’s budding Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail network alone.

“And because volunteers multiply the impact of Project Conserve members and build community support in the region, volunteer engagement is one of our most important service goals,” said Stout. “Members recruit and coordinate community volunteers for conservation projects like water quality monitoring, habitat restoration, and invasive species removal.”

Project Conserve members have recruited 5,200 volunteers who served 28,400 additional hours to benefit local conservation projects.

“I’m pleased that CMLC’s benefit to our community hasn’t been limited to only a few counties. The program has reached all of western North Carolina,” said Roe when reflecting back upon the impact of Project Conserve. “Each day you hope that something you do will leave the region better than it was the day before. I think Project Conserve did that, and continues to do that every day.”

While Project Conserve members’ contribution to our region is obvious, its impact on those who serve has proven profound as well. The program has also succeeded in cultivating burgeoning conservationists—many whom remain in the region and continue to positively affect it for years after their initial service ends.

“I wouldn’t be here without Project Conserve,” said Tom Fanslow, CMLC’s land protection director. “Like it has done for so many, the AmeriCorps program gave me the opportunity to get my foot in the door of conservation in WNC.” Under Fanslow’s helm, CMLC has protected more than 18,000 acres of land since he joined the organization as an AmeriCorps member in 2004.

Fanslow is far from the only member of Project Conserve to springboard to a permanent career in conservation. Seven of CMLC’s fourteen full-time staff are Project Conserve alumni.

“In addition to public service toward our region, Project Conserve also gives members field and office experience, which helps them refine their interests and guide the next steps of their careers,” said Kristen Lee, Project Conserve Program Coordinator and former AmeriCorps service member at CMLC.

In total, 32 AmeriCorps alumni are currently employed by a Project Conserve host site.

Few others have the perspective of John Humphrey to assess the magnitude of the CMLC’s array of contributions to the community since the land trust’s founding 20 years ago. In addition to donating the organization’s first-ever conservation easement, he served as an early board president and presided over hiring its first full-time staff member.

“We’ve saved almost 30,000 acres of land,” said Humphrey. “Helped created a state park and two state forests. Saved a rare plant from the brink of extinction.”

“But Project Conserve may be the best thing that we’ve ever done,” he concluded. “The amount of talent and passion that this program has brought to conservation in our region is staggering. Look how many of these folks stick around and continue to do good things for years into the future.”

“Project Conserve isn’t just impacting those whom it serves among our region. For those who serve, it’s changing their lives, too.”

AmeriCorps Project Conserve is administered by CMLC and funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the North Carolina Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, and the critical support of its host sites and community partners.

Since Project Conserve's start in 2004:

  • 410,000 hours of service have been completed in WNC
  • 196 members have completed 11-month service terms
  • 30 members have served 2 terms of service
  • 40 environmental and conservation organizations have been involved in hosting members
  • 32 Project Conserve alumni are now employed by host sites
  • 45,000 people have been educated about environmental and conservation issues
  • 5,200 volunteers have been recruited who have served 28,400 hours

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20150628/ARTICLES/506281003/0/search?p=all&tc=pgall


‘Every once in a while the stars align,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady when he reflected back on the auspicious series of events resulting in the establishment of DuPont State Recreational Forest (SRF).

For nearly two decades, DuPont SRF has been a crown jewel of Henderson and Transylvania counties. Since its creation, it has become a cherished part of our local heritage, an economic engine luring visitors to the region, and a source of rejuvenation and inspiration among all who seek out its natural splendor.

But DuPont SRF’s tenure as beloved public land has matured to the point where memory of its origins has begun to fade among many. Said McGrady, “There are some who assume that it has always been open to the public. A lot of people have forgotten how it happened and who is responsible.”

The DuPont Corp. began manufacturing X-ray film in 1958 in what is now present-day DuPont SRF. The company chose the site largely for its supply of clean water — available from the Little River and its tributaries — necessary for its manufacturing process.

When newer technology reduced the need for medical imaging film by the mid-1990s, DuPont elected to sell its Cedar Mountain plant and vast surrounding land holdings.

But because the site had been private for decades and was hidden from most by its remote location, its natural treasures weren’t particularly well-known among the community.

“So few people knew what was there except DuPont employees,” said McGrady. “Not many knew it was worth protecting.”

At least they didn’t know initially. “And then along came young Jeff Jennings,” he recalled.

Jennings was an engineer for the DuPont Corp. who moved to the region in 1991. His interest in the environment led him to become involved with the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO) in Hendersonville.

“One day I came to work, and they announced that the plant was for sale and that they were separating 7,600 acres of land away from the factory,” Jennings said. “It was assumed that private developers would purchase the property. It was imminently developable, and the real estate market was doing well at that time.”

Driven by his firsthand knowledge of the significant — albeit little-known — natural features of the property, Jennings sprung into action in the summer of 1995.

“The first and most important thing that I did was consult the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) and Chuck McGrady,” said Jennings, who at the time was serving as president of ECO.

CMLC — then the Natural Heritage Trust of Henderson County — was then only a year-old land trust that had yet to complete its first conservation project. McGrady was the organization’s incoming board president.

At a meeting that July, Jennings presented the news of the impending sale of the DuPont land to McGrady and fellow board members. His pursuit of CMLC’s help to protect it proved to be an easy sale. As it turned out, the natural significance of the land was on the radar among a few other conservation-minded individuals.

In addition to McGrady, founding CMLC mother Anne Ulinski of Flat Rock and DuPont employee Bill Thomas of Cedar Mountain had firsthand knowledge of the property and were immediately strong proponents of conserving it.

“There were people interested in protecting it before me. Anne already had a folder all about the tract and what was there,” recalled Jennings. “And Bill, who was a prominent activist with the Sierra Club — and ultimately CMLC — had been in touch with the state about its significant ecological communities.”

But the degree to which CMLC could be helpful was uncertain. “At that point, we barely existed. CMLC was just a board with no staff. We were still trying to figure out how to do our first project,” McGrady said. “We had no money. It was a chicken and egg problem. We needed a project to get money, but we couldn’t do a project unless we had money.”

It was at that time that a serendipitous pairing occurred. McGrady’s longtime friend Rex Boner worked for The Conservation Fund (TCF). “I had invited him to spend the night at my house during that time. As chance would have it, CMLC happened to have a board meeting while he was here, so I invited him along.”

“As chance would have it again, Jeff Jennings was at that meeting asking CMLC if the land trust could play a role in DuPont,” explained McGrady. “That’s when I had a sense the stars were aligning.”

McGrady couldn’t believe the fortune of the chance meeting. He learned that Boner already had Delaware-based contacts with the DuPont Corp. that would enable negotiations to purchase the land for conservation to begin quickly.

Jennings and Boner contacted DuPont’s Land Legacy division, which had a precedent of agreeing to bargain sales — selling property below its market value — to achieve conservation among some of their other land holdings.

“It just felt right with Rex, Jeff, and DuPont coming together,” said McGrady. “And CMLC was the facilitator of it all. They provided the forum.”

By the next year, TCF had reached a deal with DuPont for the bargain sale of 7,600 acres in Western North Carolina. In 1997, TCF then transferred the land to the State of North Carolina, which purchased it for $2.2 million — less than $300 an acre — with funding from the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund. That quickly, DuPont State Forest became a reality.

The new state forest — managed by the N.C. Forest Service — comprised nearly three-quarters of DuPont’s total land holdings at the site. The tract known as the “doughnut” — because 2,000 acres in its center remained private — hosted a plethora of natural treasures including picturesque Hooker and Wintergreen Falls and the scenic summit of Stone Mountain.

“I can’t recall a single negative reaction to the news. At such a great price from DuPont, who is going to complain?” Jennings asked.

Several years later, the state’s acquisition of a second phase of DuPont land — 2,200 acres comprising the “hole in the doughnut” that included Bridal Veil, Triple and High Falls — gained far more attention than the equally, if not more, significant and larger initial acquisition.

“The first, and primary, acquisition was non-controversial,” Jennings said. “There was nobody that didn’t win.”

For fledgling CMLC, the project was a landmark effort that served as a springboard for further conservation in our region — eventually leading to 28,000 acres of protected lands, and counting.

“I’ve always credited them with playing an instrumental role in creating DuPont SRF, Jennings said.

McGrady agreed. “An organization like CMLC starts out by taking baby steps. One of the first bigger steps it took was its role in DuPont. It gave people a vision and made people feel like we could accomplish something.

“TCF worked the deal and found the funding. But CMLC was the local entity that assembled the partners,” he added. “It was really the first time that the land trust was involved in something big. It was a great precursor to the work to come.”

CMLC’s involvement in DuPont SRF, noted McGrady, was also the catalyst for the organization to expand its geographic reach beyond Henderson County to Transylvania County and the Hickory Nut Gorge. “We realized that we couldn’t approach conservation that (narrowly). The natural communities and resources that we wanted to protect don’t always know our political boundaries.”

McGrady smiled at the fortune of how DuPont SRF went from an idea among a few, to a collaborative effort among many, and ultimately a treasure to all. “Looking back, it was one of those moments where you sit there and go ‘wow, how did this happen?’”

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20150531/ARTICLES/505311004/0/search?p=all&tc=pgall


The good news featured last month about the previous year’s protection of 1,000 more acres of our region’s beloved natural treasures was only half of the story. Often overlooked is the fact that placing land in protection can be just the beginning of the conservation process.

Once conserved, active stewardship efforts are imperative in order to uphold critical natural heritage values of properties under the protection of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC). Stewardship not only preserves existing merits, but often enhances, restores, and makes accessible these already precious local lands.

Read on to learn how several of CMLC’s stewardship initiatives improved and preserved many of our community’s protected lands in 2014.

Advancing the Little Bearwallow Trail

Made possible by CMLC’s acquisition of the Wildcat Rock tract in 2013, the next segment of the budding Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail broke ground last year in an effort to link the summit of Little Bearwallow Mountain to the new public trailhead on Highway 74A in Gerton. Phase 1 of the new Little Bearwallow Trail was constructed by the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and a private contactor last spring.

The new footpath ascends from the trailhead 1.1 miles up the north slopes of Little Bearwallow to a picturesque 100-foot waterfall. Because this new section of trail partially traverses private property, a permanent public trail easement was purchased from CMLC conservation landowners John Myers and Jane Lawson.

“It was always our vision protect this land and share it with the community,” said Myers.

Myers and Lawson were recently awarded CMLC’s prestigious Lela McBride Award for their commitment to the conservation of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge and innovative vision to connect conserved lands by public trails.

Phases 2 and 3 of the Little Bearwallow Trail are still under construction and not yet open to the public. They are being built by the Carolina Mountain Club (CMC), North Carolina and Vermont Youth Conservation Corps crews, and a private contractor. All three phases of the new trail are expected to be open for hiking in 2016.

“This trail is an example of making the most out of all resources available,” said Ed Sutton, owner of Trail Dynamics, the contracting company hired to construct a portion of the new trail. “It’s a hybrid project that has utilized skilled labor from volunteer, semi-professional, and professional trailbuilders. It is exciting to be part of it.”

“When it’s done, Little Bearwallow will be one of the best new trails in the region. It has everything hikers love—a waterfall, cliffs, wildflowers, and a scenic viewpoint,” said Sutton. “And eventually, it will be a second route to the top of Bearwallow Mountain, the most popular spot [in the Upper Gorge] of all.”

Sutton added that the Little Bearwallow Trail not only has natural features coveted by outdoor enthusiasts, but each phase will appeal to different users. “The hike to Little Bearwallow Falls is only about a mile each way and can be completed by most folks, regardless of age or ability.”

For intermediate hikers, Sutton said “those seeking a view and a slightly longer hike will soon be able to continue beyond the falls for another mile to Wildcat Rock. More experienced hikers can keep going from there for more of a backcountry experience.”

The trail project—which will ultimately extend three miles—was made possible with funding from the Recreational Trails Program, Conservation Trust for North Carolina, Donald Jones Foundation, REI, and Fernandez Pave the Way Foundation.

When completed, the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail will connect multiple conserved lands of CMLC and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy by a 15-mile continuous footpath circumnavigating the high ridges surrounding the community of Gerton.

The trail network features waterfalls, dramatic cliff faces, rock outcroppings, and expansive summit vistas. It can be accessed within a 35 minute drive from Asheville, Hendersonville, or Lake Lure.

Bog Restorations in Flat Rock

In addition to monitoring more than 100 existing conservation easements in 2014—an important obligation undertaken annually to ensure that conservation values of protected properties persist—CMLC partnered with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in an effort to restore Flat Rock’s King Creek bog.

The project focused on removing invasive plants threatening native, rare species that call the bog home. These invading weeds also disturb natural water levels and hydrology critical to sustaining the bog itself.

“USFWS calls it the holy grail of mountain bogs in terms of its conservation significance,” said CMLC stewardship director Sarah Fraser.

Restorations efforts also got underway last year at Hyder Pasture, another Flat Rock mountain bog. CMLC acquired the former wetland in 2013 and intends to complete a full-restoration of the bog in 2015. The project is again in partnership with USFWS, as well as NC’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Partners hope that the project will mirror CMLC’s successful rehabilitation of nearby Ochlawaha Bog. Both bogs are home to the bunched arrowhead flower, one of the rarest plant species in the nation.

The bunched arrowhead is found not found anywhere in the world outside of Henderson and Spartanburg counties. The gradual disappearance of local mountain bogs nearly resulted in its the extinction.

“It may be the rarest flower in our community,” said Fraser. “We hope that our efforts will keep it around so it can continue to be part of our local heritage.”

Biologists feared that the flower had vanished forever from the Ocklawaha Bog several years ago, but its blooms returned triumphantly following the completion of the bog’s restoration in 2012.

“It has already begun to come back at Hyder Pasture, too,” said Fraser of the success of efforts to-date. “We’ll keep making sure its home there is permanent.”

Hemlock Restoration

In 2014, CMLC ramped up its stewardship efforts in the fight against the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA). For more than a decade, the non-native pest has been decimating hemlock trees across the southern Appalachians. With help from local HWA consultant and CMLC-conservation landowner Patrick Horan, of Sapphire, the land trust released 4,600 predator beetles on threatened hemlocks.

The beetles are natural predators to the adelgid. Previous releases have visibly slowed hemlock degeneration on CMLC conserved lands.

The releases were in partnership with private landowners of CMLC conservation easements. Beetles were also deployed on CMLC-owned conservation lands like the Wildcat Rock tract which hosts the less common Carolina hemlock species on its cliffs.

Unlike the blight that eliminated chestnuts trees of grandeur from our landscape in the early 20th century, Horan believes that recent intervention with beetles will prevent HWA from eradicating hemlocks. “There will still be hemlocks in 100 years,” said Horan.

Preserving Biodiversity in the Hickory Nut Gorge

The Weed Action Coalition of the Hickory Nut Gorge (WAC-HNG), a CMLC initiative to expel invasive plants in conservation focus areas surrounding Gerton, Bat Cave, and Lake Lure, treated a total of 372 acres previously infested by non-native species in 2014.

WAC-HNG and CMLC utilized both volunteer manpower as well as goats to pull out the non-native plants before reseeding with native species.

 “The Hickory Nut Gorge is one of the most biodiverse locations in our region,” said David Lee, WAC-HNG Project Coordinator. “There are plants and animals found here that aren’t found anywhere else.”

Since invading plants can easily outcompete indigenous species, Lee said that the impact of WAC-HNG’s  projects can prevent rare native plants from disappearing entirely from the Gorge . Said Lee, “When a species disappears, the entire balance of our ecosystem could be threatened. By restoring native habitat, we preserve not just those plants but potentially all living things.”

CMLC has protected more than 28,000 acres at more than 150 projects among the Blue Ridge Escarpment, French Broad River Valley, Hickory Nut Gorge, and beyond since its inception in 1994. For more information and to support land conservation in WNC, visit carolinamountain.org.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20150426/ARTICLES/504261002/0/search?p=all&tc=pgall


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