How a fraud case in the N.C. mountains added 177 acres to Pisgah National Forest

A criminal fraud case prosecuted in Asheville 14 years ago has resulted in 177 acres being recently added to Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina’s mountains.

The so-called Hoot Owl tract includes trout waters and tributaries to the Mills River, which supply drinking water to Henderson and Buncombe counties.

The story begins in 2003, when federal prosecutors took Robert and Viki Warren, among others, to court in a massive crop insurance fraud case.

Federal crop insurance had paid millions of dollars to Warren Farms for damage to tomato crops and other fraudulent claims, U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose said Thursday.

As part of their sentence, Rose’s office said, a federal judge ordered the defendants to pay $9.1 million in restitution and forfeit $7.3 million in proceeds from the fraud.

Years later, in 2015 and 2016, federal officials still trying to collect the judgments learned that the Warrens owned the Hoot Owl tract under the name of Mountaintop Farms, a limited liability company.

The officials negotiated with the Warrens to transfer the land to the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, based in Hendersonville, which then conveyed it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA oversees national forests.

Acquisition of the 177-acre tract connects 100,000 acres of the Pisgah forest to a previously isolated 1,500 acres of forest land, Rose said.

“As a result of this collaboration, the added acreage of national forest land ensures the protection of viable natural resources,” she said in a statement. “It will also bring enjoyment to visitors for generations to come.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender