Christmas tree farmer Dale Shepherd was hours from death, hardly able to breathe or speak because of his lung disease, when he told his farm foreman that he was leaving Ashe County's Pond Mountain to the foreman and another worker.
That surprise bequest two years ago could be the linchpin in protecting the northwest corner of North Carolina from development forever – and opening up thousands of acres for recreational use by the public.
The top of Pond Mountain is a 5,000-foot-high, relatively flat open ridge that offers a 360-degree view of peaks and wilderness in three states: Mount Jefferson, Three Top Mountain, Elk Knob, Grandfather Mountain and Sugar Mountain in North Carolina; Virginia's White Top Mountain, the Jefferson National Forest, Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers, Virginia's highest peak; and to the west, the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee.
Land-conservancy groups, environmentalists and state officials are working on a $14 million deal to buy Pond Mountain, preserving 1,800 acres that would be owned by the state and could be opened to the public for hiking, horseback riding and hunting. The land would be held as state game lands by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
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Shepherd's summer home at Listening Rock at the southern end of the property could become a visitor center or conference center.
Mark Johnston, who worked for Shepherd for 31 years, and Chris Shumate, a 10-year employee and lifelong family friend of Shepherd through church, own the mountain now. They don't want to sell, but are struggling financially with the inheritance tax and other issues.
About 12 years ago, Johnston and Shumate had each started purchasing 24 percent of the business from Shepherd. When he died, they had to borrow money to pay off their combined 48 percent share to Shepherd's estate. Then they borrowed money to pay the taxes on the 52 percent they inherited.
The deal they're working out would allow them to sell the land for about $14 million – which would about cover their costs. Then they would make money by harvesting the estimated 800,000 Christmas trees that cover about 600 acres of Pond Mountain.
The agreement would allow them to lease back that portion to keep the farm going and preserve more than 80 full-time jobs and seven seasonal jobs. Their New River Tree Co. would then continue on lower property and leased land.
Both Johnston and Shumate say that developers have offered them more money, but that's not what they want.
“We love the farm, and we love the mountains,” Shumate said.
“If we protect this area and they have horseback riding, you could ride forever and never cross a road, never see a house, just beautiful ridges,” Johnston said.
He said he used to wonder why farm workers were always tripping when they were up on Pond Mountain. He finally realized that instead of watching where they were walking, the workers kept looking out at the view.
“You can see forever,” Johnston said. “I've never taken anyone up there that wasn't awestruck.”
Pond Mountain is about a half mile from the northwest corner of the state. The owner of parcels that make up the corner there is talking to the state about selling. If the state adds Pond Mountain to adjacent lands that are already under conservation protection and buys some other properties, it could protect up to 4,000 acres that make up the very northwest corner of North Carolina.
“This Pond Mountain property is the first domino,” said Walter Clark, the executive director of Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust, the lead agency trying to put the deal together.
“The place sells itself,” he said. “It's so spectacular, it's hard to argue it shouldn't be protected.”
Clark said he hopes to have the agreement and financing in place by the end of the year.
Already, a private donor has pledged $1.3 million. The Natural Heritage Trust Fund awarded a $2.5 million grant in April and is considering a matching amount in the fall.
Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust, in partnership with the High Country Conservancy and the National Committee for the New River, has submitted an application for $7.4 million from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
Johnston likes to tell people that Pond Mountain is like a sponge, in part because of its topography, which has two saddle-like gaps along the top. There are numerous ponds on the property. When it rains, water runs like creeks down the gravel roads. There are about 17 miles of springs and streams that feed into creeks that flow into the New River.
There's an airstrip on a slope near the top of Pond Mountain and a hanger at the top.
Shepherd said it was his lifelong dream to own Pond Mountain. It was the area where his ancestors had lived, and he could see the mountain from the farm he lived on as a boy.
Clark had bought Dale Shepherd's old homeplace in 2003, and he operates the old Swansie Shepherd farm as Old Orchard Creek Farms, a place people come to pick blueberries. From the blueberry vines there, Pond Mountain is visible in the distance across the valley.
In the years shortly before he died, Shepherd would come around to visit his old home and would talk to Clark about Pond Mountain. Shepherd wouldn't place the land in conservation because he said he planned to leave it to some folks and didn't want to tie their hands.
Shepherd had owned pharmacies in Jefferson and West Jefferson. In the early 1960s, he bought a farm that happened to have Christmas trees on it. The farm has had a continuous contract ever since to supply Florida's Publix grocery store chain. It sells about 95,000 trees a year to Publix.
Even when Shepherd became a multi-millionaire from business and the stock market, he was tooling around in a rattling old Jeep and wearing old clothes, often in the woods hunting and fishing.
In 1984, he purchased his first tract on Pond Mountain and added more in years to come. He and his late wife, Ruth, had an adopted son and many nieces and nephews, all provided for in the will.
Johnston was visiting Shepherd at Forsyth Medical Center on Sept. 30, 2006, when Shepherd told him that he was leaving Pond Mountain to him and Shumate. Shepherd died a few hours later. He was 82.
Johnston said he considered Shepherd to be a second father.
“It's a great opportunity for Chris and I, but if I could bring him back, I would,” Johnston said. “I would still work for the man until I'm 65.”