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Asheville land trust protects Little Pisgah Mountain in Buncombe County

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1/24/2012 - Asheville land trust protects Little Pisgah Mountain in Buncombe County
by Karen Chavez - Asheville Citizen Times

This photo was taken near the pinnacle of Little Pisgah Mountain looking east into the conservation easement. The area in Fairview owned by the MacKay Family will remain protected from development.

This photo was taken near the pinnacle of Little Pisgah Mountain looking east into the conservation easement. The area in Fairview owned by the MacKay Family will remain protected from development. / Special to the Citizen-Times

Little Pisgah Mountain in Fairview, owned by the MacKay Family will remain protected from development now that it has been placed in a conservation easement.

Little Pisgah Mountain in Fairview, owned by the MacKay Family will remain protected from development now that it has been placed in a conservation easement. / Special to the Citizen-Times

 ASHEVILLE -- Elizabeth MacKay Fisher and her three brothers spent their early adult summers hiking, camping, picnicking and generally drinking in the grandeur of Little Pisgah Mountain in southeastern Buncombe County.

 For flatlanders who lived in Ocala, Fla., the yearly summer visits to their Western North Carolina family property were a slice of paradise. After all these years, Fisher and her brothers and their families decided the land needed to remain forever as in their memories and in its wild state. Late last year they placed 474 acres in a conservation easement valued at $1.5 million with the Asheville-based Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. 

 "My father, Kenneth MacKay Sr., bought the property in 1960," said Fisher, who lives with her husband, Bob Fisher, in High Vista in Henderson County. 

 "He really loved North Carolina, even though we were from Florida, and had the idea he wanted this beautiful and unspoiled property to be enjoyed by his children and grandchildren for generations to come. And we have. Four generations have enjoyed it." 

 Fisher owns the property in Fairview, which includes the 4,400-foot elevation summit that can be seen from U.S. 74A, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Chimney Rock State Park, with her brothers, George MacKay, Kenneth Jr. "Buddy" MacKay and Alfred MacKay. 

 Buddy and his wife, Anne, have a summer home on the Little Pisgah tract, but otherwise the land is mostly untouched, with high-elevation pasture, rock outcrops and cliffs and forests, crisscrossed with streams, springs and hiking trails. 

The scenic land was ripe for development, said Rich Preyer with the SAHC.

"Being such a vast property and being very visible to the public, it was one of the priority areas that we wanted to preserve," Preyer said of the project that was in the works for 18 months. "It really is a monumental project for us. We're really excited about it."

"I think we all feel we'd like to keep it as beautiful and pristine as the way it always was, with beautiful views and wildlife and trees," Fisher said. "We felt like this generation was the one that needed to make a plan. We were the ones that needed to protect it."

Buncombe County contributed $337,000 toward the project, which was matched by more than $1.2 million in donations by the landowners and a private philanthropist.

Fisher said the assessed value of the land, including more acreage also under conservation easements, is about $3 million.

"The MacKay Family gave by far the lion's share of the value," said Carl Silverstein, SAHC executive director. "They are to be commended. It really is a generous gift."

A conservation easement is a voluntary and permanent agreement that limits certain development on a property in exchange for possible tax benefits, Preyer said. Easements can be tailored to suit the landowner's present and future needs, such as activities relating to farming.

While the conservation easement prohibits any future development or logging, a small parcel of the Little Pisgah land is still available to the MacKay family for six future home sites, but they must be constructed in a way that protects the overall conservation values of the land, he said.

Although the property is not open to the public, the SAHC will be holding guided hikes and some hiking clubs can get permission to access the trails, Preyer said.

More land preserved

The project was one of three wrapped up at the end of 2011 for the SAHC. The land trust also purchased 248 acres in Robinson Cove in the Sandy Mush farming community. The parcel bookends a ridge in the Newfound Mountains that SAHC has been working to protect since the 1990s and will protect the headwaters of a major tributary of Sandy Mush Creek, Silverstein said.

Located at the end of the state-maintained Robinson Cove Road, with excellent access, southern exposure and creeks, the property was attractive for development, Silverstein said.

"It starts in the valley and goes up to the ridge line, right on the Madison County line. It connects with other property we've already protected," he said. "There are some cabins on the property, and our long-term hope would be to fix them so that people from Asheville might be able to spend time out there."

Kate Jayne's family runs the Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, which sits on a 1,000-acre parcel also under conservation easement, near the Robinson Cove tract.

Donations connected

"Luckily these purchases and donations people have made have connected these properties," Jayne said. "This is protecting water supplies and wildlife migration corridors. It's a beautiful valley, with very steep terrain that is good for keeping water safe and trees for clean air. It's a treasure here on the order of some of our national parks."

The SAHC also obtained 88 acres adjoining the Sandy Mush Game Lands, which connects two major pieces of state-owned game lands managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. The land was donated to the land trust, Silverstein said, and will be made available to the public in the future for birding and hunting.

"This property will protect a corridor for wildlife in the largest contiguous network of protected lands in this portion of northern Buncombe County," he said.

In all, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy protected 5,445 acres in Buncombe County in 2011. The acreage might seem like a lot, Silverstein said, considering one of the land conservancy's main sources of funding, the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, was cut by 90 percent in the past couple of years. But he said some of the 2011 land purchases made with public dollars had been in the pipeline before the funding cuts.

"Also, our county has been an incredible partner," Silverstien said. "Even with the loss of state and federal government funding, it's a testament to the commitment of county commissioners that they've been able to contain things."

Silverstein said that the SAHC has also been helped by the drop in real estate values that has allowed the agency to compete in purchasing land, and that private donors and philanthropis ts have become familiar and comfortable with the track record of the land conservancy's work over the past four decades.

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