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700,000 Acres and Counting

Conservancy marks huge milestone, recounts some of the journey

Panthertown Valley's Schoolhouse Falls is an attraction many hikers enjoy.

Last summer, the Conservancy in North Carolina crossed a big milestone – protecting its 700,000th acre. To put that in perspective, think about a map of North Carolina. Seven hundred thousand acres is the size of two Mecklenburg counties. And there is a story behind every one of those acres.

Director of Conservation Resources Fred Annand knows many of those stories, because in his 33 years with the Conservancy he has helped to make many of those acquisitions happen. One of the most memorable involved Long Valley Farm, a 1,435-acre estate straddling the Cumberland-Harnett county line. 

Annand says the property, which once belonged to James Stillman Rockefeller, a member of the prominent industrial, banking and political family, was important to the Conservancy’s work to protect the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. “Early on, we wanted to jump-start the project. We met with biologists who tracked the woodpecker. They identified a ‘no regrets’ list of properties – if we succeeded in protecting any or all of them, there would be no regrets.”

Rockefeller’s property was on the list. At the time, Rockefeller, the great-grand nephew of John D. Rockefeller and the former president of Citibank, was 98 years old, living in Greenwich Connecticut. “One rainy day, I’m sitting in the office, and I wonder, ‘does Rockefeller have a listed phone number?’ ” Annand remembers. “Sure enough, he did. I called him and he picks up the phone. I start to tell him what The Nature Conservancy does and he cuts me off. ‘I know what The Nature Conservancy is. What do you want?’ he asks. I tell him that we need to talk about his property in North Carolina.”

Rockefeller asked Annand to come to Connecticut. Annand arrived to find Rockefeller conducting business on his cell phone, sitting in a gorgeous room with a big stone fireplace. “I start to tell him about our work,” Annand says. “He cuts me off and asks ‘Do you want my land?’ I say ‘yes.’  He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the business card for his personal attorney in Manhattan.”

Four years later, when Rockefeller passed away at the age of 102, he left the Long Valley Farm to the Conservancy. After eight years of restoration, the Conservancy gave the land to the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation; this fall, it became Carvers Creek State Park.

This land, where Rockefeller – a dashing veteran who once scored Olympic gold as a member of the American crewing team and graced the cover of “Time” magazine – swam and hiked during his summer visits, is now open for the public to enjoy.

Putting More Special Places in Public Ownership

That’s true of most of the property that the Conservancy has protected over the years – it has been transferred into public ownership so that everyone can benefit. In fact, the Conservancy has transferred more than 600,000 acres into public ownership – state and national forests, state parks, national wildlife refuges and state game lands. Every day, people across North Carolina people play, hike, paddle, hunt and fish on public lands that were protected by The Nature Conservancy.

Another of those places is Panthertown Valley in Jackson and Transylvania counties, now part of Nantahala National Forest. Panthertown is distinguished by its broad, flat valley floor flanked by granite cliffs abruptly rising 200 to 300 feet. These granite domes with exposed rock are uncommon in the Southern Appalachians and offer spectacular open views. The valley is home to a number of rare plants and one of the area’s most accessible and lovely waterfalls, Schoolhouse Falls. The headwaters of the East Fork of the Tuckasegee River and 20 miles of native brook trout streams are located there. Although it is formally known as “Panthertown,” many locals still call it “Paintertown,” the mountain word for “panther” being “painter.” 

Paintertown’s Protection

Conservancy Trustee Joel Adams, who was born in Western North Carolina and works as a financial advisor in Asheville, knows the area well. “I first cast a fly to a speckled trout on the East Fork of the Tuckaseegee below Paintertown,” says the avid fisherman. Adams was on the board in 1989 when the Conservancy purchased the tract from Duke Power. Somehow the huge tract – 6,295 acres – had managed to avoid the fate of other nearby property: It had not been subdivided into lots for vacation homes or become part of a golf course. It almost certainly would have if they Conservancy had not made the purchase. 

Adams has a lifetime of stories about “Paintertown,” but one stands out. “One Father’s Day, I went camping with my children. We drove up to Paintertown. If you walk past Schoolhouse Falls and go beyond a bend, there is a big sandy beach with a pool in front.” 

He continues, “After dinner, my son looked at me and said ‘we want to thank you for this.’ That’s the most important thing my children have told me. As an estate planner, it is one thing to pass assets. But, as a parent, it is important to pass a world that you want to live in.” 

Moving into the Future

Panthertown Valley is a great example of the Conservancy’s past work, which has focused largely on acquisition. It is also a great example of the Conservancy’s present and future work. While the Conservancy will continue to protect North Carolina property, it is also working in new ways. One of those new approaches is helping to inform management of public lands - including the million acres of U.S. Forest land in the Southern Blue Ridge – ensuring that these healthy forests will continue to provide recreational opportunities for people and help clean our water and air.

Trustee Darrel Williams, who joined the board in 2010, is excited about that new work. In 2012, he saw a controlled burn at the Conservancy’s Green Swamp Preserve. Williams says seeing another area in the Green Swamp regrowing after a successful burn made a point about how important fire and good forest management is to much of the land that the Conservancy has protected.

In September, Williams and other trustees visited the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge to get an update on the work the Conservancy is doing in response to rising sea level. “It was very obvious to me that climate change and the rising seas will continue destroying our coastal areas at a rapid pace. But, seeing our success there gives me hope,” he explains.

Informing public land management, bringing fire back to the land and helping coastal communities adapt to climate change – along with a growing freshwater program – are all part of what the Conservancy is doing in 2013. Like any successful organization, the Conservancy will continue to evolve to meet the needs of the time, but one thing will stay the same: it will remain focused on its mission to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.

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