Karen Chavez, Asheville Citizen-Times
PLUMTREE, N.C. - Like generations of his family stretching back more than 100 years on this scenic Avery County land, David Charles Vance remembers from childhood the calmness of the grazing cows.
Now that Vance, fire marshal and emergency management director for Avery County, and his family members, have sold the pasture and forest land into permanent conservation, he knows those cows will continue to graze for hundreds more years.
The 357-acre parcel, known as the Yellow Mountain Gateway Tract, in the shadow of Roan Mountain and the Appalachian Trail, was purchased by the Asheville-based Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy recently to protect clean water sources, habitat and agricultural land on the flank of Spear Tops Mountain.
The property, purchased for $1.6 million, is intended for eventual transfer to the state for public use.
"My great grandfather moved into this area and acquired the property, and it has been in our family for over 100 years," said Vance, one of the eight heirs of the Vance/Odom families who sold the property to the conservancy.
"It was a favorite place in the summer for family outings and picnics. We agreed that we wanted to keep the land in as natural a state as possible. We were happy to work with the SAHC to preserve the property so it can continue to be enjoyed by future generations as part of the heritage of the area."
Known as "Spear Farm" by the family, the newly-protected tract sits in the center of the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area and can potentially provide public access to the state natural area in the future. The property rises to 4,700 feet elevation on Spear Tops Mountain and also includes a lower pasture that fronts on U.S. 19 E.
Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy protected two adjoining tracts in 2011 and 2012. Money for the most recent purchase came from a combination of state funding from the Natural Heritage Trust Fund, a state allocation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and private donors Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury.
"The Stanbacks made a generous gift that enabled SAHC to purchase the property," said Michelle Pugliese, the conservancy's land protection director.
"We are grateful to the eight members of the Vance and Odom families who came together to make this acquisition possible," said Carl Silverstein, the conservancy's executive director. "This new conservation success completes our protection of the iconic Spear Tops Mountain."
The view of the two "spears" that form Spear Tops Mountain is visible to drivers heading south on U.S. 19E from Plumtree to Spear.
Grazing cows can also be seen on the pastureland that comes right to the highway. These are the same cows, Pugliese said, that summer on the grassy balds of the Roan Highlands, helping to maintain the vegetation on the balds surrounding the Appalachian Trail.
"Ancestors of the family actually lived on the farm in the late 1800s, and subsequently our families have enjoyed decades of picnics and hikes on the farm," said landowner Risa Larsen. "The multiple creeks that run through the property provided a cool spot in the heat of the summer and lovely waterfalls of various heights as they run down to join the North Toe River."
A main branch of Justice Creek and several smaller tributaries run across the property. The quality of clean headwater stream sources in the North Toe watershed made this tract a conservation priority for clean water, Pugliese said. The Justice Creek, Spear Tops and now the Yellow Mountain Gateway property completes the protection of Spear Tops Mountain.
The Justice Creek and Spear Tops property were transferred to the state in August of 2013, to be managed by the state division of Parks and Recreation as part of Yellow Mountain State Natural Area. Pugliese said she expects the latest tract to be transferred this year.
The Yellow Mountain State Natural Area was created by the N.C. General Assembly in 2008 on the Avery-Mitchell county border bounded by Little Yellow Mountain and Pisgah National Forest to the north. State natural areas are managed for conservation and typically have no facilities but allow for passive recreation such as hiking and birdwatching. Yellow Mountain now contains 2,080 acres purchased by the SAHC and transferred to the state.
In addition to the pasture lands in the lower elevation, the tract contains high elevation northern hardwood, high elevation red oak and rich cove forest, which are three communities identified as high priority in the state wildlife action plan, Pugliese said, along with streams and waterfalls.
"This property will provide access to a 100-foot spray cliff waterfall, an absolutely beautiful waterfall many people didn't know was back in woods," she said. "It's a rich area biologically. In the future, as Yellow Mountain State Natural Area expands, this is going to become a central access point to the state area, so it will be easily accessible to start hiking."