Almost four decades ago, Rick Merrill of Flat Rock was drawn to Western North Carolina by its stunning beauty and natural character. Little did he know back then that he would eventually devote so much of himself to preserving what drew him here in the first place.

“They said something about mountains and waterfalls,” recalled Merrill, 63, when selecting his placement for a public service position with VISTA — a precursor to the AmeriCorps program — in 1969. “When I heard that, I raised my hand.”

Soon, Merrill found himself serving in Green River, where he assisted former mill workers suffering from brown lung. Here he met and married his wife, JoAnne — who was serving with VISTA in Clear Creek — and they never left.

By the 1980s, Rick and JoAnne purchased a tract of land in Flat Rock where they constructed a home and a horse farm. There, they raised three children and hosted eight riding horses while Merrill built a career in real estate.

From the onset, they were enchanted by the secluded natural charm of the farm — enough that they longed to prevent any further changes to it. “We never wanted to see it developed. We wanted it to always be a horse farm,” Merrill explained.

The Merrills chose to partner with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) in 2004 to place a conservation easement on about eight acres of their property in order to ensure its permanent protection. The easement would prevent any further development on the land during their lifetime and for generations beyond.

The easement had considerable benefit to the community and region by preserving the scenic natural character of its woodlands and pastures, keeping intact wildlife habitat, and safeguarding water quality. The tract hosts tributaries that directly feed a rare southern Appalachian bog on King Creek.

Mountain bogs are one of the rarest and most imperiled habitats in our region, once occupying more than 5,000 acres. Today, less than 10 percent of these wetlands remain — a particular concern since they hosts numerous rare plant and animal species as well as filter pollution out of stormwater while helping to slow and hold it to lessen flooding.

Merrill's land contains a small portion of the King Creek Bog and safeguards the waters directly flowing into the rest of it. Merrill said, “The bog could be compromised if this property wasn't protected from development.”

Merrill's act to protect local natural resources ultimately proved to be just one of many he has taken to support conservation in our region. He discovered that while the easement had positive impacts that extended to the entire community, it also provided financial benefit to his family in the form of tax savings.

“The theory behind a conservation tax credit is that conserving land is good for the public at large. It's good for the community, it's good for the state, and it's good for the nation,” Merrill said. “It's a win-win.”

This experience of conserving his own land inspired Merrill to get actively involved in CMLC's efforts. That same year, he joined the organization's Land Committee — a group that evaluates the merits of potential projects based on conservation values — and was able to lend his real estate knowledge toward the process of protecting more land.

In the decade since, Merrill's contribution to CMLC and the conservation projects it has achieved has been extensive. Beyond the committee, his most impactful role has been informing his clients about conservation easements. “Then I make the introduction to CMLC, and oftentimes the rest is history,” he said.

In addition to his own property, Merrill is responsible for directing 10 more projects — totaling 778 acres — to CMLC that resulted in newly protected lands. This includes now-conserved tracts at Seniard Creek in Mills River, Wildcat Rock in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge, and The Cabin Ridge in Edneyville. He also convinced his next-door neighbors to place a conservation easement on their property in Flat Rock.

To every one of his clients, Merrill presents the option of conserving land and preaches its widespread benefit. “They can save land, save their legacy, and save money,” he said. “It doesn't get any better than that.”

Also credit Merrill as an indirect source for several more worthy properties that ended up in CMLC's permanent protection, having educated more than 100 of his fellow agents at Beverly-Hanks & Associates and other brokers across the region in the nuts and bolts of conservation easements.

“It doesn't go more than a couple months where I don't get a call from other agents asking about conservation easements. I've raised the bar within our firm to be aware of conservation and how clients and the community can benefit,” he said.

In 2009, a conversation Merrill had with another agent ultimately led former Congressman Charles Taylor to CMLC in pursuit of the protection of his 8,000-acre East Fork Headwaters tract in Transylvania County. To date, CMLC and partners have acquired more than 4,000 of those acres — teeming with clean water, mountain bogs, and stunning waterfalls — which now form Headwaters State Forest.

In addition to directing conservation projects to CMLC over the past decade, Merrill lent his time and expertise to the organization in even wider capacities, serving on its board of trustees twice — including as board president — totaling seven years and counting.

Merrill even puts his money where his mouth is. “I feel that when I'm sitting on the board of an organization, I shouldn't be enriched by that position,” he said in explanation of why he donates his listing fee to CMLC on transactions that he brokers.

Unfortunately, Merrill has detected a sharp decline in clients seeking conservation easements this year, and he does not believe it to be coincidence. The state's conservation tax credit expired at the end of 2013 as part of the General Assembly's comprehensive tax reform efforts.

“Because of the benefit to everybody, folks need to be encouraged to do an easement. The state tax credit was a huge incentive that has gone away,” he said.

Merrill noted that there was also uncertainty surrounding the federal income tax deduction for easements, dealing another blow to conservation incentives for landowners.

“We won't be able to conserve as much land, and it's to the detriment of all of us,” he said. “It really is. Everybody loses.”

Nevertheless, Merrill teems with pride for all that CMLC has accomplished — tickled that he has been able to help along the way. “People come (to CMLC) because we have a reputation for trying to do it the right way,” he said.

He credits the diverse and astute experience of the organization as a selling point to his clients pursuing conservation easements.

“We uphold the highest standards,” he said, pointing out that CMLC was the first land trust in the state to be accredited by the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission. “We wanted to go down that path early to set an example for how a land trust protects and stewards land as effectively as possible.”

That includes not just the initial saving of land, but also the long-term assurance that the property's conservation values are guarded in perpetuity.

When accepting a conservation easement, the organization is legally bound to permanently uphold and defend those values. “And perpetuity is a helluva a long time,” Merrill said. “I'm glad I chose to protect my land with CMLC because I'm confident they will keep their promise to see it conserved long after I'm gone.”

Ironically, Merrill wasn't always part of the solution to preserving the natural heritage of our region. Prior to his involvement in land conservation, he owned a successful excavation business.

“I was very much in earnest a developer,” he confessed.

Among Merrill's former projects, the development of condos atop Jump Off Mountain earned him some ire from peers.

“Now keep in mind there had been a 15-story hotel on top of the mountain before,” he chuckled. “But now I am atoning for my sins of those years.”

“As a (real estate) agent, it's very satisfying to be able to take what I do for a living and apply it toward conservation,” he said. “At the end of the day, it's the most satisfying part of my career.”

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at

‘I tromped all over that mountain, up and down, and all around,” Virginia Browning Turner said of her beloved Long John Mountain in Hendersonville. “So have my children, and so have my grandchildren. It is very special to me.”

As a child, Turner explored the long ridge and walked in the former footsteps of its namesake, local pioneer John McCarson.

“I know how the mountain got its name, thanks to Frank Fitzsimons,” she explained, referencing the lore within the volumes of “From the Banks of the Oklawaha.” According to Fitzsimons, the “rough and tough” McCarson stood 6 feet 7 inches tall, and some insisted he reached 7 feet in height — when barefoot.

”Back then, that was unheard of,” Turner said. McCarson’s stature earned him the moniker Long John, and the ridge on which the 19th-century pioneer built his cabin became known as Long John’s Mountain among his friends who visited to fox hunt.

Like McCarson and his friends, Turner explored nearly every inch of the mountain as a child. “It was my personal playground. I spent so much time growing up on that mountain — it became very precious,” she said.

Turner, 80, and her brother, Bert Browning III of Saluda, inherited property atop Long John Mountain from their parents, Bert Jr. and Sara Browning. The couple purchased a farm on the mountain in the 1940s to add more milk production to the family business, Kalmia Dairy.

They named the farm Mayfields to commemorate the month of the year in which they married as well as purchased the land and other significant milestones in their lives. For many years, the family employed one of Long John Carson’s grandchildren as the farm’s herd manager.

While Turner never lived on the farm, much of her childhood was spent on horseback ascending the pastoral slopes of Long John to reach the mountain’s ridge.

In the early 1960s, dairy production on the farm ceased when her parents sold the cattle to begin the Hawthorne Hills subdivision on the property. Lots were sold, and over the next several decades, the neighborhood was constructed in three phases.

By the time the fourth phase of development — the highest value property at the top of Long John Mountain — was ready for construction, Turner and her brother had inherited the land following the passing of their parents.

“I did fine (with the development) until we got to the mountain,” Turner said. “I just couldn’t do it.”

Her brother Bert, 85, ultimately agreed. “It’s OK to use some of what God and creation have given us, but it’s not right to ruin it for all of time,” he said. “It’s been there for a few million years, and for one owner to come along and destroy it for posterity seems grossly unfair to me.”

Sold or developed, their Long John Mountain property could have brought the siblings a substantial financial gain. But instead, Browning and Turner began pursuing permanent conservation of the tract with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.

Last year, they donated ownership of 50 acres to CMLC to ensure its perpetual care. The tract includes the 2,700-foot summit Long John Mountain itself.

Between U.S. Highway 64 and N.C. Highway 191, the mountain is visible from much of Hendersonville and forms the immediate backdrop to the city when viewed from the east. Development has encroached on much of the mountain, but the forest within the donated property remains in its natural state. Even logging hasn’t impacted the tract in more than a century.

“My mother and father were very grateful people who worked hard. Throughout their ownership, they protected the entire ridgeline from development,” Browning said. “My sister and I felt it only fitting that this land be shared with the public now and in perpetuity.”

Turner and Browning worked with the local land trust because of their unyielding faith in the nonprofit’s mission. “I trust CMLC,” Turner said. “We wanted to give it to them lock, stock and barrel — the whole thing. Then they can have the legal rights to defend it if anything encroaches upon it.”

Turner added, “We took care of it up until this point. Now it’s theirs. And they’ll take care of it.”

In addition to preserving the mountain view that charms Hendersonville, conservation of Long John Mountain also safeguards regional water quality. Nearly a half mile of tributaries on the tract that flow into nearby Shaw Creek will forever be shielded from sedimentation and pollution that can result from construction on steep mountain slopes.

Several plant species that have declined in abundance in the region — including French Broad heart leaf, wild ginger and galax — make their home on the property and now have permanent habitat protection, thanks to the siblings’ conservation effort.

To Turner and Browning, this adds additional meaning to their act of setting aside the top of Long John Mountain. “I always had the feeling that I never owned it … that I was only a steward of it. If anything, I am to leave only a light footprint and to protect the living things that have always been,” Turner said.

“We seem to be on a path as a nation of destroying everything, including the land,” she added. “I could not bear the thought of my mountain being destroyed by roads and houses.”

Now in its ownership, CMLC will protect, manage and defend the land atop Long John Mountain in perpetuity in order to conserve its natural heritage. Though access to the public is not imminent, the tract could one day become a nature preserve or park and host publicly accessible trails.

Turner is hopeful generations to come will enjoy the land as have she and her brother.

“It is my hope that, when the sun begins to set leaving only the mountain shining in sunlight like a wonderful jewel, others will share my love of the mountain and its natural inhabitants and my delight in knowing that all are now safe,” she said.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, CMLC protects land and water resources that improve quality of life for residents and visitors in Henderson, Transylvania, and surrounding counties. Since 1994, the land trust has protected more than 27,000 acres in the French Broad River watershed, Hickory Nut Gorge, and Blue Ridge Escarpment. For more information, visit

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at

There seems to be something special in the air lately that is inspiring people to get outdoors and go for a walk. It could be the onset of autumn and return of beautiful fall color to our mountains. Perhaps it's cooler temperatures that make the trails more inviting. And just maybe it's a new wave of White Squirrel Fever sweeping the region.

Wait. Do what now?

White squirrel fever (noun): The addiction related to a quest to complete eight hikes on the most spectacular lands protected by local conservation efforts, seeking the coveted reward of the famous White Squirrel hiking patch, the inspiration felt from visiting scenic lands forever preserved and publicly-accessible, and the satisfaction of supporting further land conservation in our region.

This inviting fever is brought on by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy's popular White Squirrel Hiking Challenge, and the reason for a new pandemic is CMLC's recent announcement of a brand-new line-up of eight hikes in its newest release of the program — “Version 3.”

CMLC's Hiking Challenge not only awards an embroidered white squirrel patch that hikers can affix to their hats, packs or shirts, but completers of the hikes also earn gift certificates from the program's sponsor, Mast General Store. The certificate can be redeemed for hiking gear in the outfitter of Mast's downtown Hendersonville location.

The white squirrel patch design was chosen to highlight the local wildlife curiosity of Transylvania County — and recent migrant to Henderson County and beyond. One of the goals of CMLC's conservation efforts is the preservation of wildlife habitat and corridors — which even includes the regionally beloved rodent. The two counties make up the majority of CMLC's land protection service area.

First launched in 2011, CMLC's Hiking Challenge is now in its third release. In just three years, the program has raised nearly $20,000 for the land trust's conservation efforts in WNC, directly supporting projects that safeguard water quality, create new trails and parks, and protect scenic views — among many other public benefits.

Bob Carlson and his wife, Kim, of Hendersonville, caught the fever more than once. Completers of both previous Challenges, the program enabled them to learn about land conservation while they explored new outdoor destinations in the region.

“The White Squirrel Hiking Challenge showcases the beautiful variety of terrain that CMLC is protecting,” Carlson said. “It's absolutely amazing how many special places they have protected. It's a joy to visit them for ourselves, and to support their continued work to conserve even more.”

The Carlsons enjoyed the challenge not only for its scenic views, but also the ease with which they found out how to reach the eight trails.

“All of the information is online. The website provides clear directions to the trailheads and for the hikes themselves,” said Kim Carlson. “It is terrific for both newcomers and experienced hikers. It's also great for those who want to avoid big group hiking but still not get lost.”

For the Carlsons, the perks at the end of the journey don't hurt either.

“Since there is a goal to attain, CMLC's Hiking Challenge is a big motivator to get hikers out into nature,” Bob Carlson said. It results in a feeling of accomplishment upon completion. And we just love that white squirrel patch.”

The couple isn't alone. The previous edition of the Hiking Challenge — Version 2.0 — has seen nearly 120 completers to date — almost twice as many as the inaugural edition. Since the program's inception, regional hikers have logged more than 3,500 individual hikes on lands protected by CMLC.

CMLC's Hiking Challenge has proven popular with both adults and children. Earlier this year, Bryson Baucom, age 4, completed the eight hikes to become the youngest challenger to earn the patch. “I like the white squirrel,” Bryson said. “My mom sewed it to my backpack, and hikers on the trails ask me where I got it.”

Bryson's parents, John and Erin, made the short trip to the mountains about a half dozen times from Boiling Springs, S.C., to complete the challenge as a family. They are one of more than 30 couples and families to finish the challenge together.

“It was a great way to spend time together as a family in the outdoors while also getting to instill a conservation value in our son at an early age,” said John Baucom. “So many of these places wouldn't be available for us to hike if it weren't for CMLC's work. And many of them certainly wouldn't be as scenic if they weren't set aside to keep them that way.

“Visiting these spots and knowing they will be around for Bryson to take his children and grandchildren to them … that's probably the biggest reward,” he added.

According to Kieran Roe, CMLC's executive director, the Hiking Challenge is especially a way for visitors to these lands to understand the importance of land conservation. “We are convinced that if we can get more members of our community out onto the lands we protect to experience them firsthand, they'll 'get it,' ” he said.

“The Hiking Challenge provides a tangible incentive to see these special places in person — and we hope those visits are just the first sparks in what will be a burning passion for visiting and supporting the conservation of natural lands in our region — one that lasts a lifetime.”

Participation in CMLC's Hiking Challenge is free for members. Visit to enroll in the program and find out more information about the program.

Feel yourself catching White Squirrel Fever and wondering how to cure it? Take the Challenge and go for a hike.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at

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