Word came last week on the allocation of a $3 million grant from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, completing the previous grants totaling about $14 million.
All the money for the Pond Mountain project has now been allocated, said BRRLT Executive Director Walter Clark. The money is coming from the following sources - $1.3 million from the Foundation for the Carolinas (private funding); $5 million from the NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund; and $7.5 million from the NC Natural Heritage Trust Fund.
To date, $3.8 million has been transferred to the sellers. That is phase one of the project, Clark said. “We hope by early next year to have all the property paid for and then next summer have a big celebration.”
Clark n who lives in Lansing on the former Swansie Shepherd blueberry farm n has worked hard on this project and others to encourage conservation of the state’s natural beauty and wildlife. He is appreciative of all those who have played a part.
“Without willing, conservation-minded sellers this transaction would not have happened,” said Clark.
The land being purchased was owned by Christmas tree farmer Dale Shepherd, who left it to his foremen Mark Johnston and Chris Shumate, who had been buying the land at the time of Shepherd’s death.
Shepherd was selling half his business to his foremen, Mark Johnston and Chris Shumate, and they inherited the rest of New River Tree Company. Because the inheritance taxes threatened an end to the Christmas tree business and the loss of jobs for about eight people, Johnston and Shumate approached the National Committee for the New River. Developers had already come knocking, but wanted only to pay for the land, said Johnston, not the trees. And neither Johnston nor Shumate wanted to see the mountain developed.
“The best thing was for the state to buy the land and we could stay in business, harvest the trees that were planted and close out the business, everybody keeping their jobs for the duration,” Johnston said.
Then they came up with the idea of conservation. “It suited a means for us to continue the business,” Johnston said. “Dale was always a hunter and a farmer and a good steward of the land, so we thought this would honor his legacy. This was a way to keep the guys working and honor Dale and Ruth. Dale had taken bits and pieces over the years and put them together as a whole, and protecting that would be an asset to Ashe County.
“We will keep some of the mountain ridges looking like they do without condos and houses on the ridgetops,” said Shumate. “Dale could always see Pond Mountain from where he lived and I think he would like that.”
“Also, we have been extremely fortunate to have local political leaders, like Senator Steve Goss, who have been strong advocates,” Clark said. “When all is said and done, Pond Mountain will be owned by the state and managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission as game land. It is our hope that in addition to hunting, the mountain will be a draw for many recreational activities, such as mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, etc.
“And projects this big don’t happen without a lot of partnerships,” Clark added. “Even though Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust is playing the lead role, partners include the National Committee for the New River, High Country Conservancy, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Foundation for the Carolinas, Blue Ridge Forever, Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund.
“We hope the Pond Mountain project will lead to the protection of additional properties in the immediate area. Our goal is to protect about 4,000 acres in the northwestern corner on NC. The Pond Mountain project is approximately 1,800 acres. And finally, protection of Pond Mountain is a win for everyone - the land is protected, the owners can continue to harvest a resource - the existing Christmas trees, and hopefully the area will become a greater recreational draw for everyone.”