By Emma Castleberry
Conserving Carolina, a local land trust formed by the merger of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and Pacolet Area Conservancy, announced a major milestone in early April. The trust completed a 320-acre purchase of land on the summit of Youngs Mountain, a portion of the Blue Ridge Escarpment that provides an incredible biodiversity of flora and fauna, as well as unrivaled hiking opportunities for locals and visitors alike. “Conservation of the Youngs Mountain summit is thrilling due to the numerous public benefits it provides,” says Kieran Roe, executive director of Conserving Carolina. “The project brings permanent protection of nationally significant natural communities, preserves views of the scenic peak from in and around Lake Lure and enables development of public trails to summit hiking spots which offer breathtaking vistas.”
The National Academy of Sciences identified the Blue Ridge Mountains as a “number one priority” for conservation because of the region’s exceptional biodiversity. “Plants and animals are often very specifically adapted to the habitat where they live,” says Rebekah Robinson, assistant director of Conserving Carolina. “So, if that habitat changes by becoming hotter, cooler, wetter or drier, those animals may not survive. As temperatures and precipitation levels change, many species may need to move—whether to a different area or a different elevation—to find the specific habitat that they need, or to follow their food sources as they might move over time. Conservation can help by protecting habitats for these animals to move to and corridors for their migration.”
This recently aquired Youngs Mountain tract provides habitat for more than 80 different kinds of animals, including several that are rare or endangered, such as the crevice salamander, the green salamander and the Diana fritillary butterfly. The consistency of these habitats, even in the face of climate change, is vitally important to the survival of the animals they support. “Scientists with the Nature Conservancy have found that an important characteristic for climate-resilient landscapes is a rich diversity of microclimates, which offer a wide variety of habitat types so that diverse species can live there,” says Robinson. “Youngs Mountain meets these criteria with its varied elevation, exposed rock faces and creeks.”
In addition to the protection of animals, the Youngs Mountain tract will play a vital role in preserving a variety of plants. A recent inventory found more than 380 plant species on the mountain’s summit, from more common species such as trillium and dogwood, to less prevalent types like Carolina buckthorn and granite dome goldenrod. The protected tract even includes a stand of rare, old growth forest.
The Youngs Mountain Summit is another link in a 12,000-acre area that Conserving Carolina has been working to protect for two decades. Conserving Carolina was a pivotal part of creating Chimney Rock State Park in 2005 and also helped in the creation of Lake Lure’s Buffalo Creek Park and Rutherford County’s Youngs Mountain Trail Park, an as-yet unopened park which is connected to the recently acquired tract. The summit of Youngs Mountain will be a part of Conserving Carolina’s plan for a large trail network in the area. “Our long-term vision is to continue protecting lands and connecting trails, in order to create the Summits Trail encircling Lake Lure and the 100-mile Hickory Nut Gorge State Trail,” says Rose Jenkins, communications director for Conserving Carolina.
As with many projects in the realm of conservation, this tract was secured through a team effort. A private conservation partner temporarily secured the property when it became available in 2014. Conserving Carolina purchased the land in late 2017 with support from the North Carolina Clean Water Management Fund, Fred and Alice Stanback and the Open Space Institute (OSI). OSI funded a portion of the acquisition with a $225,000 grant through its Southeast Resilient Landscapes Initiative. “The Youngs Mountain property has exceptional climate resilience, even in a region with high overall resilience,” says Joel Houser, southeast field coordinator at OSI. “This means that its diverse landscape and proximity to other protected properties will help to ensure that species of plants and animals will endure despite the expected stresses caused by climate change.”
As a nonprofit, Conserving Carolina relies on donations and volunteers to do its important conservation work. For more information, visit conservingcarolina.org.