By Kayla Bott
The Southern Highlands Reserve (SHR) is a tucked-away oasis in what is referred to as the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the landscape shift where our mountains meet the foothills. The tranquil landscape of waterfalls, wildflowers, ponds, glades, mountaintop views and lush gardens easily sparks feelings of wonder and reverence. SHR protects more than 120 acres of the Lake Toxaway community, land conserved for wildlife, research and the propagation of a native plant arboretum.
“We have made great accomplishments in restoring native plant species including red spruce trees (Picea rubens) and flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum),” says executive director Kelly Holdbrooks. “These efforts, along with the work of wildlife biologist Chris Kelly, have helped to reinforce the habitat of the native northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus).”
Established by Betty and Robert Balentine, SHR opened its doors beyond private tours and research in 2012. They now host monthly visitors’ days, guided trail hikes, public education programs and research symposiums.
“Climate change is proving to be the greatest challenge for generations to come,” says Holdbrooks. “Sites like SHR and other niche ecosystems play a significant role in collecting information and disseminating it to the world, often being the first ecosystems to respond during harmful environmental shifts.”
The development of a digital plant database, thanks to a private grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust, will help track these changes. Much of the land purchased for the conservancy was once sanctioned to be deforested for housing. The influx of people and development in the Blue Ridge Mountains means a greater need for environmental awareness and the preservation of sanctuaries like SHR.
“Educating the public on the importance of our native ecosystems, climate change and the pivotal role of native plants is among our top priorities,” says Holdbrooks. “With assistance from partners like the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the National Park Service, we will continue furthering our efforts to restore tens of thousands of red spruce to public lands and become a hub for high-altitude botanical research.”
Southern Highlands Reserve is located at 558 Summit Ridge Road in Lake Toxaway. Visitation is by reservation only. For more information on upcoming events or donations, visit southernhighlandsreserve.org or call 828.885.2050.