The historic Orchard at Altapass area beside the Blue Ridge Parkway was once ripe for development.
But motorists driving the parkway this fall won’t see intrusive second homes and out buildings.
Instead, they’ll view forested mountains and grassy meadows. That’s because 4,200 acres of land here have been protected through purchase or by conservation easement. The century-old, 125-acre orchard north of Marion, N.C., got permanent protection in March.
The land was set aside by the Conservation Trust for North Carolina as part of a campaign to preserve the pastoral Southern Appalachian landscape that borders the 469-mile scenic highway.
The nonprofit trust since 1996 has protected 57 N.C. properties embracing 32,465 acres along the parkway, in part with state funding. Other land trusts, including The N.C. Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, have preserved 25 more properties totaling 30,330 acres. Together, that’s more than 62,000 acres.
Without protection, “I think there would be a lot more housing developments next to the parkway,” said Reid Wilson, executive director of the trust in Raleigh.
In fact, owners of the nearby Jackson Knob Cove had already surveyed house lots before they decided to sell to the trust in 2008. The 101-acre cove contains a section of the Revolutionary War-era Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, wildlife habitat and a half mile of headwater streams.
As a result, most short-distance vistas along the N.C. part of the parkway remain uncluttered. Houses intrude occasionally around towns such as Blowing Rock, including those structures visible from the nearby Raven Rocks Overlook.
National forest lands protect large swaths. At Asheville, a screen of trees blocks views of the city. The parkway corridor averages 800-1,000 feet wide so adjacent private lands remain vulnerable to development.
The “drive awhile, stop awhile” parkway from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a major economic engine. In 2014, 13.9 million visitors in both states spent $863.5 million to sight-see, camp, hike and stay in nearby towns, according to the National Park Service.
The Conservation Trust was tapped to lead and coordinate land protection in 1996 by the Governor’s Year of the Mountains Commission. “One of the important recommendations was that more land needed to be protected along the Blue Ridge Parkway...to maintain the tourism economy,” Wilson said. “They recognized that if the scenic views were destroyed, fewer people would come to the parkway.”
The conservation trust has spent $28.2 million in public and private money to buy land or to pay landowners for a permanent easement. The bulk of public money comes from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund; the 2015 legislature gave the fund about $19 million a year for the next two years.
Clean-water projects for the parkway, like elsewhere, must protect water quality, natural heritage and cultural values. Wilson said philanthropists Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury contribute matching money. The Conservation Trust also gets donations from the public (Disclosure: I’ve contributed $25-$35 a year in some recent years.).
Wilson said 29 properties have been donated or sold to the parkway, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, state parks or Pisgah and Nantahala national forests; 12 others await transfer.
Parkway Superintendent Mark Woods commended the work of conservation groups. “The thing I hear from visitors the most (is that) the number one experience is that scenic view,” he said. “What a wonderful gift.”
Woods said money for land protection comes from general operations. “Typically, we don’t receive appropriations for land acquisition.” The parkway since 1996 has added 2,681 acres.
Legislation introduced in 2010 by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and others to provide $75 million to buy up to 50,000 acres surrounding the parkway got a committee hearing but nothing more.
Wilson said land-protection along the parkway will remain an unfinished task. “This is a long-time endeavor.”
Recently protected lands
• Stone Mountain Overlook, Alleghany County, 232 acres, between the Blue Ridge Parkway and Stone Mountain State Park.
• John’s River Gorge, Watauga County, 192 acres, next to Blowing Rock once targeted for a housing development.
• Waynesville Watershed, Haywood County, 8,030 acres provide protection along 10 miles of the parkway.
Source: The Conservation Trust for North Carolina