By Kevin O'Donnell
On Earth Day 2021, a press release went out from the offices of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy: Computer game developer Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games, was donating 7,500 acres of prime mountain land to the conservancy. The gift was the culmination of an ongoing project — strategic land preservation in the North Carolina Mountains.
The story was picked up by the Associated Press and reported as far away as India. It’s easy to see why the story garners so much attention. The size of the property is considerable — more than three times the size of Roan Mountain State Park in East Tennessee. The landscape is dramatic: A rare tract of high-elevation, unspoiled land. And the story is intriguing. In an era when famous billionaires are spending their money on super yachts and vanity spaceflights, it is charming to imagine a tech industry mogul turning his resources toward conservation.
The fact that Sweeney’s money comes from computer gaming has additional resonance. Could it be that he is performing a kind of penance? As an influential game developer, the man has presumably helped to enable countless young people to hide away in windowless digital spaces, cut off from time and nature. All the more striking, then, to see him making a difference in preserving some of Appalachia's most dramatic wide-open spaces. The "Asheville Citizen-Times" reports that the donation is the largest private land conservation donation in North Carolina’s history.
The back story is that the Sweeney gift is part of a multi-pronged, multi-partner, ongoing strategic process of preserving land in one of the most ecologically significant places in the eastern United States.
So where is this place?
If you have been to the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Gardens on the top of Roan Mountain, you have probably seen the donated acreage. It is visible from the viewing platform accessed by strolling south along a walkway from the middle parking lot at the Rhododendron Gardens visitors area. That platform faces south/southeast and overlooks one of the most gorgeous views in the Southeastern U.S. What many people don't know when they look out over the area is that the mountains they are seeing include large sections of private lands. The SAHC has been working with Sweeney to change that. The 7,500 acres is a small but key part of this overall region, and its acquisition is part of a longer-term strategy to preserve the whole area.
To view this broader region on a computer, visit Google Maps and search “Spruce Pine, North Carolina.” Click “Directions” and type in “Carvers Gap, North Carolina,” as the starting point. Then click “add destination” and type in “Minneapolis, North Carolina,” as the third node on the itinerary. The blue line showing that route will circle a remarkable roadless area of nearly pristine, undisturbed highlands, one of the gems of the east, and an important, high-value target from the perspective of conservation and preservation.
Mainly above the 4,000-foot contour line, this roughly oval-shaped region spans 12 miles north to south — from Grassy Ridge in the Roan highlands, south almost to Spruce Pine — and 8 to 10 miles east to west, with U.S. Highway 19E marking the eastern border, and N.C. Highway 261, the road from Carver’s Gap down to Bakersville, marking the western border.
Through accidental circumstances of geography and history, the area has remained pretty much roadless. Some county roads do make incursions from either side. And there are dirt roads and historic wagon roads. But no paved road runs all the way through. One cannot drive a car from one side of the area to the other.
Some old-timers call this area the Caney Mountains. Others call it Cane Creek Mountains. Cane Creek, a tributary of the Toe River that runs through the town of Bakersville, North Carolina, drains the western slopes of these mountains. To be precise, this is the Northwest Drainage of the Middle-Upper North Toe. (The Toe River also drains the Black Mountains and, below the confluence with Cane Creek, becomes the Nolichucky River after it hits the Tennessee State line.) The border between Mitchell and Avery Counties runs right through the middle of this area.
Whatever you want to call the region, its ownership and conservation status are more fragile than you might think. Many visitors assume that these mountains are part of the Pisgah National Forest. Looking at the region on google maps, you see a darker shade of light green that reaches almost all the way down to Spruce Pine. By convention, that shade of green indicates public lands. (Google Maps in fact does not provide an official color key or map legend.) However, in this case the green actually indicates the proclamation boundaries of the Pisgah National Forest. A proclamation boundary is aspirational. It demarcates the perimeter of lands that the forest service would like to acquire. But if you look at a map that shows the actual National Forest holdings within that area, it looks like Swiss cheese — or, truly, more like a moth-eaten cloth that has been half devoured. In fact, close to 50% of the property within this part of the Pisgah National Forest proclamation boundary is composed of private inholdings.
All of these properties fall within the broad perimeter of the Pisgah boundary. However, much of the private land is vulnerable to uses that would defeat preservation efforts.
Conservationists have been working for decades to acquire those inholdings and to patch together the preserved areas. The land transactions have been complicated, and have involved cooperation between government agencies, nonprofit conservancies, and private individuals. For example, the State of North Carolina established the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area in 2008. The following year, the Nature Conservancy acquired the summit of Little Yellow Mountain, which it transferred to the State to be incorporated into the State Natural Area. Ten years later, SAHC acquired hundreds of acres that they call the Yellow Mountain Connector, to connect that State Natural Area with other pieces of protected land. In the meantime, the SAHC works constantly on protecting small private holdings here and there, working with landowners to arrange easements and other preserves. Land preservation in this region is a work in progress, and conservationists need to be strategic in their acquisitions.
The size, elevation, and undisturbed nature of the region make it an ecological treasure. The location of the Sweeney donation within this region make those lands crucial. Marquette Crockett, an East Tennessee State University graduate and biologist who works as SAHC’s Roan Stewardship Director, says that on the morning that the press release about the Sweeney donation went out, she received phone calls from field biologists who were in tears because they were so moved and relieved to learn of the area’s preservation.
There have been notable development threats to the region in the past few decades.
In the early 2000s, the Village of Penland land scheme emerged. Private developers proposed a 2,000-lot residential and retail development on 1,200 forested acres, uphill from the Penland School of Craft, in Penland, North Carolina. The development project turned out to be a scam involving inflated land appraisals, phony down payments and other illegal activities regarding bank loans and property deeds. By the early 2010s, six people had been convicted, and some went to prison.
In 2010, a Spanish wind farm company sought to locate North Carolina’s first industrial wind farm in the center of the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area's planning zone. The turbines were designed to be 350 feet high. (That's 3 ½ times the height of the Sugar Top condominium tower on Sugar Mountain.) The towers would have extended straight out along Bailey Meadows in the middle of this area that so many partners have spent so many years working to preserve. Most people who work in conservation support renewable energy, but this was not the right place to test wind farming on an industrial scale. The project was abandoned in the face of opposition and regulatory uncertainty.
In 2012, Sweeney bought 900 acres on the east face of Yellow Mountain, including the headwaters of Jones Creek and Pyatt Creek. The purchase included the 5,300-foot summit of the mountain. Linda Pearsall from the National Heritage program put Jay Leutze, a senior advisor to the SAHC, along with other SAHC principals, in touch with Sweeney. The 900 acres that Sweeney had purchased adjoins a tract that SAHC had purchased after the Village of Penland debacle. The SAHC people were relieved to learn that Sweeney’s goal was conservation. “Tim was fantastic from the very beginning,” Leutze said.
And so a strategic partnership was born. Sweeney began working with the SAHC. That 900-acre purchase evolved into a purchase of the 44 separate parcels, with very few inholdings, that make up the 7,500 acres that Sweeney is gifting to the SAHC.
Members of the SAHC discussed details of the transaction, and plans for managing the tract, in a “Virtual Lunch and Learn” event held on Zoom in June 2021. SAHC has posted a 55-minute recording of the event on YouTube.
So when can you go and hike there?
The Sweeney-donation lands will be named South Yellow Mountain Preserve. The land includes Bailey Meadows and Raven Cliff. When the acquisition is finalized, it will become a major piece of the patchwork of preserved lands that constitute much of the Caney Mountains, and a major step in the ongoing process to preserve the overall region.
As for being able to hike there: It will take some time. This summer, the conservancy is beginning the due diligence required for such a large land transaction, starting with a complete property survey. The tract has a 33-mile boundary, and there are 100 miles of mapped waters within the donated lands. It will take months to complete the survey. Then there are legal actions required to complete the transaction. The property likely will not be deeded to the conservancy until 2022.
After the property is conveyed next spring, the SAHC will work with other stakeholders to draw up a management plan. The conservancy will retain ownership of the area and will manage it for the public. Sweeney's gift will include an endowment that the SAHC will use to pay management and maintenance fees. Historically, SAHC has not always retained ownership of land that it acquires. In the past, such large tracts might be deeded to the USDA Forest Service or other federal or state agencies. But, according to Leutze, the Forest Service has been chronically underfunded in the past few decades, so the decision was made that the SAHC will retain ownership and will manage the area. The bottom line is that at some point during 2022, you should know when and how you can hike up and enjoy this property.
Kevin O’Donnell is a professor in the Department of Literature and Language, and Director of the Environmental Studies minor in the Department of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University.