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Phoenix Mountain: 30 years in the making

Story Highlights
  • Phoenix Mountain, part of a unique, rugged mountain chain called the Amphibolites, has been protected after almost 30 years.
  • The mountain rises to over 4,700 feet and is ranked by the N.C. Natural Heritage Program as Nationally Significant - it's home to 17 rare and endangered plants.
  • The tract includes a high-elevation mafic seep community, a special kind of wetland that contains a number of beautiful native plants.

“This [acquisition] stands out in terms of TNC’s tenacity – never letting go, until we found a way to protect the mountain,” TNC's Fred Annand explains.

No one knows how Phoenix Mountain got its name, but it lived up to that moniker this spring. “I liken it to the Phoenix bird rising from the ashes,” explains the Conservancy’s Merrill Lynch. “I couldn’t use that analogy anywhere better than Phoenix Mountain.”

Lynch first visited the Ashe County mountain more than 30 years ago, when he was working with the state’s Natural Heritage program, cataloguing the special plants found on the peak. Associate Director Fred Annand used that data when he began work to permanently protect the mountain in the mid-1980s. At one point more 25 years ago, Annand thought he was close to conserving property on the mountain. But, the transaction fell through.

Over time, pieces of the mountain were bought and sold and sold again. There was subdividing and a few houses were built. The biggest threat came a few years back, when Florida-based developers bought a large tract with the intent of turning it into a gated community. They got as far as building the gatehouse and the sales headquarters, before the recession hit. Eventually, the property went into foreclosure. This spring, Lynch closed the transaction with the bank, buying a 475-acre tract for $1.5 million, less than half of its tax value.

“This just shows you a couple of lessons. We focus on important places and we never give up,” says Lynch. “You never burn a bridge. You just wait for the opportunity and funding to come together. For Phoenix, it took almost 30 years to finally protect the last amphibolite peak in the New River Headwaters, even after all seemed lost several times over.”

Phoenix is part of a unique, rugged mountain chain called the Amphibolites – named after the rock that forms them. Amphibolite rock contains large quantities of magnesium, iron and calcium, which weathers to a rich soil with a high pH that provides fertile ground for unique plant species, some of which occur nowhere else in the world.

The Nature Conservancy began its work in the Amphibolites at Bluff Mountain Preserve, which was acquired in 1977 – the same year that the North Carolina Chapter was chartered. Since that time, the Conservancy and our conservation partners have protected parts of seven other Amphibolites - Three Top, Elk Knob, the Peak, Snake, Paddy, Rich and Mount Jefferson.

“Although you find streaks of amphibolite rock elsewhere in the Southern Appalachians, this is the only mountain range composed almost completely of amphibolite,” explains Lynch. He admits that the geology is often lost on people. “Most people don’t understand. They know it is a mountain and it is pretty and it has a nice view. They don’t think about the geology, soils and the ecosystem that comes with that particular geology. Collectively, the Amphibolite Mountains are one of the most biologically significant areas in the southern Appalachians.”

Phoenix Mountain rises to over 4,700 feet. It is ranked by the N.C. Natural Heritage Program as Nationally Significant and is home to 17 rare and endangered plants. It lies close to and drains into the North Fork of the New River, which is classified as an Outstanding Resource Water, a designation reserved for the state’s most pristine waterways. It contains significant natural communities, including one of the best examples of the globally rare High Elevation Rocky Summit community. The population of the federally endangered spreading avens found on this bluff is the largest in the world. There is also a significant population of the federally endangered mountain bluet.

The tract includes a high-elevation mafic seep community – a wetland at 4,200 feet that contains a number of beautiful native plants including the large-leaved grass-of-Parnassus, which is classified as a threatened species in the state. 

Phoenix Mountain is important as climate change occurs. It is a long east to west trending ridge, resulting in a long north-facing flank. Most of the rare plants are found on that north flank. “That’s where you have your coolest microclimates, because they get less solar radiation,” explains Lynch. “As climate warms, these north-facing mountain slopes will be important refugia for species retreating from the heat.”

Clearly, Lynch and Annand are thrilled that the decades-long effort to conserve Phoenix Mountain has finally paid off. “This stands out in terms of TNC’s tenacity – never letting go, until we found a way to protect the mountain,” Annand explains.

But, both men say there is more work to be done at Phoenix – other valuable undeveloped property containing endangered species and home to great horned owls, falcons and other birds and animals is available on the mountain. “This is a really important foot-in-the-door,” Annand explains. “Acquiring this property isn’t an ending, it is a beginning.”

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