John and Anne Barry, of Charlotte, and their friend Merrill Lynch are in a four-wheel drive SUV that is slowly laboring up a steep, rutted road on the side of Phoenix Mountain.
The road is really just a path through the wooded eastern flank of the mountain, with branches slapping the open windows of the SUV.
John Barry is board chairman of the North Carolina chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and Lynch is the group's northern-mountains conservation practitioner. The Barrys wanted to go with Lynch to see the mountain that the nonprofit conservation group has pursued for decades.
The group has finally been able to buy a big part of the mountain and plans to preserve it from development.Lynch says Phoenix Mountain is an important part of the watershed for the New River, and is home to many rare and endangered plant species, making the mountain a nationally significant ecosystem.
"It's one of those things that's amazing in the scale (of the diversity)," Barry said.
The bumpy ride for the Barrys and Lynch takes them up from Old N.C. 16, climbing nearly 2,000 vertical feet, past an area that had once been proposed as a ski resort with the longest ski run in the southeastern United States. When that didn't work out, a group of Florida-based developers planned to build luxury homes here.
The Nature Conservancy had wanted to purchase the property for preservation since at least the early 1980s, Lynch said.
"When the Miami developers got a hold of it and started development plans, we figured it was lost at that point," he said.
But when that housing development also fell through, the bank bought back 475 acres of Phoenix Mountain in a courthouse auction in 2010. That's when The Nature Conservancy contacted the bank and began serious conversations about buying the land.
The problem was that the same bad economy that sank the housing projects made it difficult to get money for conservation. The state's four conservation trust funds that had granted $172.1 million across North Carolina in 2007 had cut funding to $34.5 million in 2011, and competition for the money was stiff.
The Nature Conservancy wound up raising private money for the Phoenix Mountain tract and has now closed on it for about $1.5 million.
"We had to struggle," Lynch said. "It took a lot of commitment across the board to do it, in these economic times particularly."
Part of the reason that The Nature Conservancy was so interested in the property is evident in the black rock that was exposed when developers cut the dirt road.
The rock is amphibolite, a metamorphic rock that forms the bedrock on Phoenix Mountain and other mountains such as Mount Jefferson, which are part of the Amphibolite Mountains Macrosite in Ashe and Watauga counties.
The minerals in the rock contribute to a high pH soil.
"That's one of the main reasons this place is so unique biologically, because of the amphibolite," Lynch explains on the drive, saying the region in the only place in the Southern Appalachians where amphibolite covers thousands of acres.
Phoenix Mountain has the world's largest-known population of Appalachian avens or spreading avens, a rare and endangered plant that grows on rock outcroppings. It's among 17 rare plant species identified on Phoenix Mountain by The Nature Conservancy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
On the drive up, the SUV founders for a bit, all four wheels spinning dirt. Barry lowers the gear and eases the vehicle forward, until finally the mountain flattens out and they're at the top. They park and walk through the woods.
Barry and Lynch spread a map up against a tree and get their bearings on the property they have just passed through.
The land includes a bowl-shaped depression that has boggy areas, where rare plants like Gray's lily grow. The mountain is part of the watershed for the New River headwaters. It includes a stream big enough for brook trout, and Little Phoenix Creek runs along the bottom edge of the property on its way to the North Fork of the New River.
Mount Jefferson looms in the near-range view, which means that people visiting the state natural area there would have been able to see development on Phoenix.
While The Nature Conservancy now owns a sizable chunk of Phoenix Mountain, the organization isn't alone at the top. The top of Phoenix Mountain is forested, and it's not so much of a peak as it is long and wide and flat.
A narrow road along the top passes a home with a beautiful view.
The road becomes paved and is private when it goes through brick columns to another home, a 10,000-square-foot Old English-style manor, with seven bedrooms, eight baths, a home theater, spa and a guesthouse, all set on 412 acres that includes a 300-foot cliff face. The property is on the market now for $8.3 million.
The manor house, which is sometimes rented for weddings, has a private paved drive to the top.
It's owned by Eric Hunter, who made millions of dollars as a co-founder of a company that makes light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.
The property that's now owned by The Nature Conservancy had once been part of Hunter's vast estate.
The conservation organization would like to buy more land, trying to raise money, trying to stitch land together tract by tract like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
In Ashe County, The Nature Conservancy already owns 2,000 acres on its Bluff Mountain Preserve and worked in partnership with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to protect 2,500 acres on the Tree Top Mountain Gameland.
Their dream is to one day connect the tracts by a trail system.
Barry describes how a road map of the northwest corner of North Carolina shows how rural it is compared to more heavily developed mountain resort areas, and how important that is for the New River.
"What's going on here with these species of plants, with little infrastructure (marring the landscape) is just phenomenal," he said.
By Monte Mitchell, email@example.com (336) 667-569
See the original article here.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
Director of Communications, North Carolina Chapter of The Nature Conservancy
4705 University Drive, Suite 290
Durham, NC 27707