By Gina Malone
The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) has purchased 448 acres at Chestnut Mountain in Haywood County and plans to give the protected property to the Town of Canton. Public input is being received on ideas for uses that will conserve the land while providing for recreation. “The Town of Canton is proud to partner with SAHC and Haywood County in both the conservation of such an amazing property as well as the development of a world-class outdoor recreation facility,” says Nick Scheuer, assistant town manager for Canton.
Located just 1.5 miles from downtown, the property—rising to 3,400 feet at its peak—boasts a variety of habitat types including forested ridgelines, coves and slopes, open fields and mature hardwood forest with laurel and rhododendron. In addition, says SAHC’s conservation director Hanni Muerdter, “Chestnut Mountain is within a wildlife corridor that runs generally along the Haywood/Buncombe line.” The nonprofit Wildlands Network partnered with Blue Ridge Forever, the coalition of WNC land trusts, to identify protective wildlife corridors in this region. “The corridors were mapped using and combining movement behavior pattern research from black bears, timber rattlesnakes and multiple other species native to this region,” Muerdter says. “Wildlife often move on ridges, and the ridge on the Haywood/Buncombe line runs from Mt. Pisgah all the way north towards Sandy Mush and then onward to the Max Patch area. We try to work with landowners to protect land within these corridors for places for animals to travel.” The newly designated Pisgah View State Park is also within this same county line wildlife corridor, she adds. Because of climate change, identifying and protecting wildlife corridors has become a priority in land conservation since animals will likely use ridgelines to move north to cooler environments. Among the wildlife that calls Chestnut Mountain home are bear, deer, smaller mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
Besides wildlife corridors, SAHC takes other factors into account when evaluating projects and land for conservation, including scenic value from treasured places such as the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway; water quality; and natural heritage, a designation that encompasses the significance of plant and animal species and forest quality. Land trusts generally look 10 to 20 years out to predict how development might impact wildlife and resources, Muerdter says. “Conserving property does not necessitate the public being able to recreate on a property, but when a property is contemplated to be incorporated into a public park, game land or national forest, that is additionally beneficial.”
The Chestnut Mountain property was slated for a possible speedway in the early 2000s. When it went on the market in 2018, SAHC approached the sellers to look at the land. The sellers, who would end up donating part of the land value, received other competitive offers, including one from a rock quarry. “The sellers have told us that they liked the idea of the property being conserved for a public park and thought this use would best suit the community,” Muerdter says. SAHC is still raising funds to cover the remaining $300,000 of project costs. Once this has been accomplished, the land will be gifted to the Town of Canton and Haywood County.
The NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund awarded $1.2 million toward the purchase of the property since its conservation will protect several miles of tributaries to Hominy Creek. The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina’s Pigeon River Fund also contributed to project costs, and an Environmental Enhancement Grant was received from the NC Attorney General’s Office. The Conservation Fund stepped in with a bridge loan to SAHC so that the purchase could be closed before grant funds were administered and fundraising was completed.
“Asheville growth is pushing outward into Haywood County,” Muerdter says, “and the protection of this tract and its plans as a future park help secure a large, forested destination, with the Highway 19/23 and I-40 corridor nearby for residents of Canton, Haywood, Buncombe and the surrounding area to easily access as an outdoor park.”
Scheuer views the conservation and the development of an outdoor recreation facility as having the potential to positively impact the town, county and region. “Our goal for this project is to create something that will be used for generations to come,” he says, “and we cannot thank SAHC and their partners enough for their investment in our future.”