N.C. vows to protect Grandfather

North Carolina's park-buying binge continued Monday as Gov. Mike Easley signed an agreement to buy the wild, 2,601-acre backyard of Grandfather Mountain, one of the state's best-loved places.

The $12 million purchase includes a protective easement on the 604-acre tourist attraction itself, known to millions of visitors for its suspension footbridge and black bear habitat. The family of Hugh Morton, Grandfather's conservationist owner who died in 2006, will create a nonprofit entity to take over the operation.

“North Carolina will protect and preserve Grandfather Mountain forever, in such a way that would make Hugh proud, and that's a high standard,” Easley said before signing the agreement in MacRae Meadows with the 5,946-foot peak towering behind him.

The agreement comes a year after the state bought 996-acre Chimney Rock, another famed tourist destination, for $24 million. Four other new parks have been authorized since 2001 because of the availability of state conservation money, a network of land trusts to help negotiate purchases and willing sellers.

While Chimney Rock sold for a little more than its appraised value – a private donor made up the difference – Grandfather is likely worth far more than the sale price, said parks chief Lewis Ledford. Appraisals have not been completed.

“It's a tremendous deal for one of the most recognizable landmarks in North Carolina,” he said.

Twelve miles of trails, ranging from leisurely strolls to tough reaches across Grandfather's tallest peaks, already carve through the mountain's backcountry. The state will prepare a master plan for its use, but Ledford expects little change there.

Visitors who drive to the mountaintop will continue to peer at captive cougars, eagles and deer, and totter across the “Mile High Swinging Bridge” slung between two peaks, said Grandfather Mountain president Crae Morton, grandson of Hugh Morton. The annual Highland Games down below will continue.

Up to 250,000 visitors come each year, with adults paying $14 and children $6 to enter. Business is fine, Morton said, and the family never considered selling to developers.

“This is not a bailout,” Morton said. “We could continue as it is moving forward, but that was not the best thing for the mountain.”

Placing the attraction under a nonprofit entity, he said, will carry tax benefits and allow it to seek grants and donations to expand Grandfather's educational and research programs. Morton will serve as executive director of the nonprofit.

The 730-million-year mountain supports 16 distinct ecological communities, from heath balds to the red spruce and Fraser fir crowning its summit. It shelters 73 rare species, 32 of them globally imperiled. In 1992, a United Nations program recognized Grandfather as a globally important nature preserve.

Much of Grandfather's 3,300 acres had already been protected through donations and sales dating to 1990. In 2004, its ownership sold an easement on 925 acres to the Nature Conservancy, a national group, at half its market value. Another 73 acres were included in 2006.

Under Monday's agreement, the Conservation Fund, another national group, will acquire the 2,601 acres and the easement on the tourist operation. The group, which can act more quickly than state government, will later convey the property to the state.

In Linville, the village at the foot of the mountain, packaging store owner Hope Teaster said she expects little local change from the state's purchase. But she added: “I'd prefer they not use taxpayer money to buy something that's already protected.”

Mike Leonard, a Winston-Salem lawyer and vice chairman of the Conservation Fund, brokered the deal. Leonard said he first approached Crae Morton last year about placing the 604-acre tourist attraction under a protective easement to erase development pressures. The family considered that, he said, but then said it might be willing to sell the backcountry.

That offer immediately made the deal more palatable to state officials, Leonard said, because it would offer the opportunity for development of a stunning state park.

Two state trust funds, supporting acquisition of parks and natural areas, are expected to provide the state's purchase money. Legislators will be asked next year to formally authorize the new state park.

But, said Crae Morton, “Who can really own a mountain? My grandfather was always quick to say I'm a steward. A caretaker.”

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