Hugh Morton's priceless gem, preserved for a song

In a troubled economic time clouded by uncertainty and anxiety, the family of the late Hugh Morton has given North Carolina the environmental deal of the 21st Century: the outright purchase of 2,600 acres of Grandfather Mountain's backcountry reserve and a development easement over the 600-acre Grandfather Mountain park, all for about $12 million.

The Morton family and Gov. Mike Easley announced details Monday about the purchase – first disclosed by Observer reporter Stella Hopkins in Sunday's paper. It assures that commercial or residential development will not encroach on Grandfather Mountain's stunning scenery, astonishing biodiversity or its challenging hiking trails. While much of the mountain and park have been under easements that tightly controlled what kinds of alterations could occur, the sale of the property to the state and the park easement mean the mountain's preservation. The family will continue to operate the park.

This is a happy development for those who have long admired Mr. Morton's dedication to his native state and his affinity for the environment. His imprint runs from the coastline to the last mountain ridge. But it was his careful nurture of Grandfather, which he inherited in 1952, that helped promote an environmental ethic in the state while opening the eyes of many to the grandeur and complexity of nature. His and his family's stewardship of the national environment stand as a shining example and an elegant challenge to North Carolinians who love their state. They have shown how to act not merely in self interest, but also for the good of everyone in preserving and protecting what we hold most dear.

Many knew Mr. Morton by his loving pictures of North Carolina and its people. We believe UNC President Bill Friday said it best when he observed five years ago that Mr. Morton “made each of us a companion in his personal discovery and enjoyment of the great natural endowment of which we are trustees.”

The Morton family's decision to sell its priceless gem at a bargain-basement price has literally fulfilled Mr. Friday's observation. We North Carolinians now are legal trustees of this most magnificent place.