Leaf watchers can cruise the Blue Ridge Parkway this fall with a new sense of ownership as they cross the mile-high mountains southwest of Asheville.
Four conservation groups on Tuesday will announce they will deed 5,300 acres in the Plott Balsam mountains to the National Park Service, which also turns 100 this week, to add to the parkway.
The tracts are near Waterrock Knob, a popular viewing area at an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet. Conservationists say they will be the biggest addition of recreational land to the parkway since the 1950s.
The Plott Balsams, named for a pioneer settler, are high enough to rise above the oaks, hickories and maples that turn North Carolina’s mountains red and gold in October.
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Only evergreen spruce and fir trees can survive the cold and wind up there. Endangered Carolina northern flying squirrels and rare bat species flit through the forests.
“It’s one of the few places on the Blue Ridge Parkway that you can park and look down on spruce-fir forests, instead of looking up at them,” said Fred Annand, director of conservation resources for the North Carolina chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
Last week the conservancy donated 1,654 acres in the Plott Balsams, worth $3.1 million, that it had acquired in 1997 with a donation from conservation philanthropists Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury.
The national Conservation Fund, meanwhile, sold about 3,000 adjacent acres to the Park Service for $2.6 million. The Conservation Trust for North Carolina will add about 200 acres and the Asheville-based Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy 300 acres.
With that, 5,329 acres will be added to the parkway for less than $500 an acre.
The idea for a new national park unit in North Carolina came from Fred Stanback several years ago, said Winston-Salem lawyer Mike Leonard, who chairs the Conservation Fund.
Leonard, a Charlotte native who has spent decades protecting land across the Southeast, knew some large, wild tracts were near the parkway. He also knew of the Nature Conservancy’s 1,600 acres in the Plott Balsams and, within a few months, learned of the 2,968 acres the Conservation Fund bought in 2012 and 2013.
“Mr. Stanback planted a seed, and a very visionary seed, to find some way to use private funds to partner with the National Park Service to create a substantial national area somewhere in North Carolina,” Leonard said.
The Stanbacks also contributed $4.3 million to buy the Conservation Fund tracts. The $2.6 million for the National Park Service’s acquisition of it came from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which gets revenues from offshore oil and gas royalties.
Leonard saw a chance to create something similar to the Moses Cone Memorial Park and Julian Price Memorial Park created back in the 1950s near Blowing Rock. “We have a chance to do something similar for the first time in 60 years,” he said.
The parkway also owns 7,000 acre Doughton Park in Alleghany County, which dates to the 1930s and was named for U.S. Rep. Robert Doughton, whose political clout helped route the parkway through North Carolina.
The parkway was conceived during the Great Depression as a public-works project to create jobs. It succeeded: the 15 million visitors who toured it last year spent $952 million and supported more than 15,000 jobs.
But the 469-mile road winds through a narrow ribbon of public land that in some areas is less than 100 feet wide on either side. Most of the views are privately owned and increasingly dotted with vacation homes.
A state commission in 1996 named the Conservation Trust of North Carolina to lead efforts to protect land around the parkway. Since then the group has protected more than 32,000 acres and other non-profit land trusts 30,000 acres.
“The work that’s been done to acquire land in the past few years has been primarily through the generosity and hard work of our land trust partners and private donors,” said parkway spokeswoman Leesa Brandon.