The Long & Winding Road to Land Protection

When Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy set out to protect hundreds of acres of forestland in North Mills River back in 2009, nobody could have envisioned all the twists to come

Henderson County’s portion of Pisgah National Forest recently grew by another 177 acres with the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy’s (CMLC) January donation to the U.S. Forest Service of the “Hoot Owl Tract” along Sitton Creek, a tributary of the North Mills River.

The addition means another parcel of national forest, formerly an island of public land surrounded by private property, is now connected to the main body of the forest. Thanks to the work of CMLC, the U.S. Forest Service and partnering individuals and agencies, the unspoiled water quality in Sitton Creek will remain clean as it flows into the Mills River, a regional drinking water source.

CMLC coordinated the transfer of the Hoot Owl property to the U.S. Forest Service, and secured conservation easements on two other adjoining tracts. These are the 77-acre property known as “Grey Heaven” north of the Hoot Owl property that encompasses the upper reaches of Sitton Creek, and a protective easement that longtime Mills River physician Dr. Howard Norton donated on 91 acres of his land just south and east of the Hoot Owl tract.

Dr. Norton, a family doctor who cared for generations of local residents starting in 1957, still lives in Mills River. He donated the conservation easement that now permanently precludes development on most of the 125 acres his family owns on and around Middle Ridge.

The 89-year-old retired physician and founding member of Mills River Volunteer Fire Department bought the property, a former scout camp, decades ago. He was hoping CMLC would succeed in getting the adjacent Hoot Owl property transferred to the U.S. Forest Service.

“My kids and I decided that we never wanted to see the backside of our mountain developed like you see over at High Vista,” says Norton, who has five children, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. “We thought the best way to do it is to put it into conservation.”

A map of the area shows not only these newly protected lands, but hundreds of additional acres CMLC has worked to conserve or add to Pisgah National Forest since 2008. These include conservation easements on 436 acres along nearby Seniard Creek owned by the family of the late George “Howard” McElrath; and the recent expansion of the forest to include 78 acres around the historic Big Creek Lodge next to North Mills River Campground.

Hoot Owl Property

As in the case of the recently-announced Big Creek Lodge property acquisition, CMLC worked for many years – in this case since 2009 – to add the land to Pisgah National Forest. Also in common with the Big Creek property, the Hoot Owl tract was once owned by Robert Warren, the former Candler tomato farmer whose lands were seized after he was charged with millions of dollars in federal crop insurance fraud.

Warren and his wife Viki were among eight people who pleaded guilty in July 2004 to swindling the government and insurance companies out of more than $9 million in bogus insurance claims from 1997 to 2003.

Ironically, McElrath had wanted to conserve the Hoot Owl property as a wildlife preserve, says Tom Fanslow, land protection director for CMLC. That’s one of the details that came out in a civil trial over a lawsuit McElrath’s family filed claiming that Warren conned the elderly landowner out of the Hoot Owl property. The trial was held in 2010, shortly after McElrath passed away at the age of 95.

The Hoot Owl tract was part of lands the McElrath family owned along Seniard and Sitton Creeks originally acquired by Howard McElrath’s father in the early 1900s. McElrath’s family claimed in the lawsuit that Warren befriended and conned McElrath into giving him the land, however a jury sided with Warren.

Streadwick, McElrath’s daughter, appealed the case to the N.C. Court of Appeals, but it upheld the verdict. CMLC’s plan had been to work with Streadwick if she prevailed in the lawsuit to permanently protect the Hoot Owl property with a conservation easement. In 2010 CMLC secured a $400,000 grant from the NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF)for that purpose. 

When Warren prevailed in the suit however, CMLC, through its attorney Sharon Alexander, initiated contact with Warren’s civil attorney in Asheville. After a lengthy period of on and off communications with Warren and his representatives and attempts to find a viable path to conserving the tract, in late 2014 CMLC made contact with then-Assistant U.S. Attorneybased in Asheville, Paul Taylor, whose office was receptive to finding a win/win outcome for the public and for conservation.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office worked out a settlement agreement with Warren and his attorneys. Under the agreement, the government allowed Warren to donate his property to CMLC for transfer to the U.S. Forest Service, and Warren received credit for the gift towards some of the millions in restitution he owed the government.

Closing in on Conservation

With the settlement agreement in place, grant funds from CWMTF, the Duke Energy Water Resources Fund and Fred and Alice Stanback helped CMLC to pay a variety of transaction costs, consummate the deal for the Hoot Owl tract and secure conservation easements on the adjoining Grey Heaven and Norton properties.

“We had to pay off numerous outstanding liens on the Hoot Owl property, as well as over $45,000 in Henderson County back taxes owed,” Fanslow says.

The deal was finalized Jan. 31. Now the Hoot Owl property adjoins the main part of Pisgah National Forest on the west and the previously isolated 1,500 acres of Pisgah National Forest at the end of Foster Creek Road on the east.

A mountain bog, elusive turtles and house on the line

In a final twist in the story, CMLC was able to secure a rare mountain bog that could be home to the rare bog turtle, listed by the federal government as a threatened species, thanks to a house Warren built on a property line.

Warren had built and partially finished a large house that straddled the property line between the Hoot Owl tract on a separate parcel that he owned. When the U.S. Marshal’s Office auctioned off that tract, a Hendersonville family ended up with the land and half the house, which was falling into disrepair.

“They got half a house, we got the other half,” Fanslow says. This turned out to be another bit of synchronicity in favor of land conservation. CMLC agreed to swap its part of the house and some pastureland to the family for eight acres of a rare swamp forest bog on the adjoining parcel. And that forest bog is now part of Pisgah.

“It’s big for a mountain wetland,” Fanslow says, noting that there is a similar mountain bog across the ridge on property owned and conserved by long-time CMLC leader John Humphrey. “Turtle surveys haven’t been done yet, but it is known bog turtles will crawl over mountain ridges – they don’t follow drainages. They could make their way.”

For now, it’s another mystery of the wild and beautiful land that makes up Pisgah National Forest where it adjoins the farm fields along the valley of the North Fork of the Mills River.

The Hoot Owl property acquisition will benefit the public in perpetuity in tangible ways. Wildlife such as black bear, deer and turkey will continue to roam the forests, and trout and other aquatic species that depend upon clean water will continue to thrive in Sitton Creek. Along with Seniard Creek, which is also protected forever, these mountain streams will keep on flowing clear and pure to add their waters to the Mills River, to fill the community’s need for clean water – for now and into the distant future.

In addition to the funders that supported conservation of the three Sitton Creek properties, the Mills River Partnership and Trout Unlimited also made grants to put in place erosion control best management practices on the Grey Heaven and Hoot Owl properties. 

“We have done our share of complicated projects but this one has taken an extra-long and winding path to completion,” CMLC Executive Director Kieran Roe says. “Tom Fanslow deserves a special prize for persistence. He overcame obstacle after obstacle to achieve a conservation outcome at Hoot Owl when at numerous points that seemed unlikely.”

Roe also cites the willingness of funders to extend grants that would otherwise have expired, particularly the NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which originally made an award for the project in 2010.  

“We deeply appreciate the cooperation of each and every one of the diverse partners who made the Sitton Creek projects possible,” Roe says. “Without the cooperation of each, we would not have accomplished the outcome which we are now finally celebrating.”

        

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