By Gina Malone
Early in 2018, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) purchased 123 acres at Brushy Knob, also known as Big Piney, one of the Seven Sisters mountains near Black Mountain. “The Seven Sisters are named the Middle Mountains on official maps, but the more descriptive, colloquial name is commonly used throughout the region,” says Angela Shepherd, SAHC communications director. Brushy Knob is the third Sister, counting from the southwest to the northeast, in the chain of summits that straddle the Asheville watershed and Montreat.
Conserving the Brushy Knob area will help protect the water quality of headwater streams and the main stem of Walker Branch, which flows into the North Fork of the Swannanoa River. “The property is tucked into a corner between the Asheville Watershed and protected conservation land at Montreat—adjoining over 100,000 acres in a network that includes Pisgah National Forest, Mt. Mitchell State Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Shepherd says.
SAHC acquired the parcel through the generosity of its former owners, Jim and Marcia Verbrugge, who owned the property for 14 years. They retain their homeplace on 13 acres nearby. “We appreciated the beautiful long-range views across the valley toward the mountain range just south of Craggy and the beauty of the changing seasons—colorful fall, greening of spring and the starkness of winter,” Jim says. Features of the landscape include steep terrain, rock formations and a peak of 4,150 feet, he adds. Trees found along the mountainsides include white, northern red, scarlet and black oaks, ash, red maple, black locust, sourwood, sassafras and flowering dogwood. Plant species thriving there include Dutch pipes, wild violets, galax and mountain mint.
The Verbrugges discovered the area years ago through summer conferences at Montreat. “Despite being ‘flatlanders’ who grew up in Minnesota, we love the beauty of WNC and the uniqueness of the Black Mountain and Asheville areas,” Jim says.
Acquiring lands such as this one can be difficult, according to Shepherd, because of the competition for available funding. “This Brushy Knob project is one of those projects that almost didn’t happen. Although it was a very worthwhile project, we weren’t able to secure full grant funding for the purchase, but the former landowners were so committed to conserving the property that they donated a large portion of the value of the land, along with a contribution to cover future stewardship costs.”
SAHC began protecting the land at Montreat in the early 2000s. “We work in six distinctive geographic conservation focus areas in WNC and eastern TN—essentially spanning the spine of the Southern Appalachian Mountains from the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Highlands of Roan,” Shepherd says. Brushy Knob falls within SAHC’s Black Mountains Conservation Focus Area. “Here we have protected tracts along or visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway (for example, on Snowball Mountain near Craggy Gardens), small inholding parcels that were included in Mt. Mitchell State Park and a piece of land at Deep Gap popular as a camping site, which was transferred to public lands.” The Woodfin and Weaverville watersheds are protected by conservation easement as well as almost 10,000 acres north of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mt. Mitchell and 600 acres at Laurel Ridge, which adjoins the Asheville watershed.
Israel Golden works as conservation education & volunteer outreach associate at SAHC, leading hikes through the area, as part of his AmeriCorps term through Project Conserve. In November, he led a hike through the newly acquired parcel that, he says, is important because of being contiguous to other conserved tracts. “This connectivity supports gene flow between wildlife populations, provides ample space for habitat in a changing climate and can support a greater variety of plants and animals,” he says. “Given that many of the challenges wildlife face stem from habitat loss or fragmentation, this connectivity bolsters biodiversity and resilience.”
Brushy Knob falls within an area of high-elevation forests, including Mt. Mitchell at 6,690 feet, that the Audubon Society had already recognized as the Black and Great Craggy Mountains Important Bird Area. This designated area is home to a wide diversity of species including Yellowbellied Sapsuckers, Northern Saw-whet Owls and Hermit Thrushes.
“The Seven Sisters trail is a pretty rural, rugged trail,” Golden says. “It’s full of undisturbed, scenic boulders and occasional expansive overlooks of Montreat and the town of Black Mountain.”
Conservation requires a “long-range perspective,” Shepherd says. “In protecting lands like the Brushy Knob tract, SAHC fills in gaps or edges along already protected lands, which helps secure contiguous, unfragmented chunks of the landscape. This is important because it provides corridors for wildlife movement and migration, scenic vistas from popular outdoor recreation vantage points and clean, undisturbed streams. Our region is facing increasing pressure from the impacts of our popularity, and it is critical that we continue protecting the land and water resources that make this place so unique.”
To learn more about 2019 hikes, visit Appalachian.org/hikes-and-events. Visitors to SAHC’s website may also subscribe to the email newsletter for updates and information.