Story by Karen Chavez of the Asheville Citizen-Times
Plans for the newest state forest in the mountains took a step closer to becoming reality with a federal grant to purchase some prime riverfront property.
The future Headwaters State Forest, which will eventually encompass 8,000 acres in Transylvania County, is now more securely preserved with a $3 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The grant, announced Tuesday by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, The Conservation Fund and the U.S. Forest Service, secured 711 more acres from former U.S. Congressman Charles Taylor, whose family has owned the land since the 1980s.
This is the first time Forest Legacy funds have ever been used to purchase land in North Carolina for conservation, said Michael Cheek, assistant regional forester with the N.C. Forest Service. Along with $5.4 million in private and state funding for previous acquisitions, the purchase brings the total land preserved in the future state forest to 3,200 acres.
“This land is right on the East Fork River, on East Fork Road. It borders the East Fork, which is a trout stream, for about a mile or two,” Cheek said. “The whole purpose of the project is to protect the headwaters of East Fork French Broad River.”
Headwaters State Forest will become North Carolina’s 10th state forest and its third largest. Situated in prime outdoor recreation real estate in the East Fork watershed of the French Broad River on the South Carolina border, it is adjacent to more than 100,000 acres of existing conservation lands in both states.
Four times the size of Mount Mitchell State Park, Headwaters spans more than nine miles of forested land with waterfalls and five miles trout streams, and provides habitat for federally endangered plant species.
The project was created in 2010 through a $33 million deal with the Taylor family, which has agreed to sell up to 8,000 acres to the state.
“It’s taken until 2013 to make substantial progress on protecting the property and establishing state forest,” said Bill Holman, N.C. Director of the Conservation Fund. “One of the exciting things about this program is there is private money, state money and federal money involved. Each partner is able to leverage their funds with other partners.”
“We’re excited by all of the progress,” said Kieran Roe, executive director of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, which has worked with the Conservation Fund and the N.C. Forest Service for years to secure land.
“We’ve got about 40 percent of the 8,000 acres acquired now. We think it will be a great thing for Transylvania County and the local outdoor-based economy there, as well as the broader region.”
The state forest will eventually be open to the public for recreation such as hunting, fishing, hiking, biking and horseback riding. It will also be managed for timber production. Cheek said he knows that people are anxious to see the land, but for now most of it is closed to public access.
“It’s going to remain closed until we get through the acquisition phase. After that, we need to develop a land management plan. The public can use the Foothills Trail, but as far as the interior, it will remain closed. We’re thinking on a three- to four-year timeline,” Cheek said.
“It will be enrolled in the N.C. Game Lands program, so it will available for all sorts of hunting in different game seasons. There is a tremendous road system that we will have to assess, but it will be open for a multitude of recreation activities, such as hiking and mountain biking.”
Holman said The Conservation Fund and the state are seeking additional Forest Legacy and LWCF funds to complete conservation of the Headwaters property and hope to have more acquisitions this year.
U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Kay Hagan and U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows supported federal appropriations for the Forest Legacy Program and the Land and Water Conservation Fund in fiscal year 2013.