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Couple Protects Rich Mountain Heritage
'I've grown up looking at that mountain right there,” said Townsend Birdsong, third-generation owner and director of Camp High Rocks, as she stared up at the lush, forested slopes of Rich Mountain looming above the camp.
“She grew up here,” said Hank Birdsong, Townsend's husband and co-owner of the Transylvania County camp. “It's been her life.”
Born in Brevard, Townsend has summer camp in her blood. Her grandfather is Western North Carolina camp pioneer Frank “Chief” Bell Sr., founder of Camp Mondamin and Camp Green Cove, two Henderson County camps that have remained in operation for more than 90 years.
“My dad went to work for Chief at Mondamin when he was 17 or 18 years old. That's where he met my mom,” Townsend Birdsong said.
In the late 1940s, Sumner Williams married Jane Bell. As a wedding present, Chief Bell gave about 1,000 acres south of Cedar Mountain to his daughter and her new husband.
According to Hank, “Chief purchased this land sight unseen on the steps of the courthouse. He hadn't ever stepped foot on the property. He bought it for about $10 an acre back then.”
Following in Chief's footsteps, the Williams decided to establish a summer camp on their new property. Sumner, who for years led the backpacking trips for campers at Mondamin, named their new enterprise Camp High Rocks after one of his favorite destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a remote summit known as High Rocks.
“Mom and Dad had a vision for the camp. Everything here was just woods,” Townsend said. “They had a dream. They were raising six children, building the camp from the ground up and working full time.”
Camp High Rocks opened in 1958 and hosted 20 campers its first year. Ever since, the summer camp for boys has instilled the values of community, adventure, leadership and independence while enabling campers to connect with the peers, themselves and especially the enchanting natural surroundings of the mountains.
The Sumners directed the camp for 30 years, retiring in 1987 when Hank and Townsend took over its ownership and operations. This year marks Townsend's 27th year as camp director at High Rocks.
Above all, the abundant natural heritage and picturesque setting of Camp High Rocks is the defining character that has drawn children to the camp now for nearly 60 years. “We really want to maintain the natural look of the outdoors here. We want to be able to share it with the kids who come here and don't get to experience it at home,” Townsend said.
“Dad wanted to keep things here as natural as he could. And now I want to keep things as natural as I can,” she added.
This sentiment explains why, when the opportunity to forever protect Rich Mountain — an adjacent property upslope that makes up the scenic backdrop of the camp — the Birdsongs, along with other conservation-minded individuals in the community, mounted a campaign to ensure the indefinite conservation of the mountain.
While it is not one of the highest mountains in Transylvania County, Rich Mountain statistically ranks as its most prominent peak. Such an attribute implies that the summit is one of the most visible from the many valleys below, meaning that human impact to its forested slopes would be seen far and wide across the region. In particular, the Rich Mountain tract buffers nearby DuPont State Recreation Forest and the scenic views enjoyed by its hundreds of thousands of annual visitors.
However, Rich Mountain's significance isn't just of scenic value. It hosts the headwaters of the Little River, the waterway that bisects DuPont and forms its breathtaking waterfalls before emptying into the French Broad not too distant from its own headwaters.
Additionally, a plethora of rare species — including the green salamander — make their home on the tract, depending on its rugged rock outcrops like the majestic Cathedral Rocks, a cluster of large boulders and rock spires protruding from the mountain's southern slopes. Some of the rocks rise more than 50 feet tall.
The conservation of Rich Mountain first initiated in the late 1990s when several tracts of land owned by the DuPont corporation — those that did not become part of present-day DuPont State Recreational Forest — were acquired by The Conservation Fund, a national conservation organization.
TCF acquired the tract because of its high natural heritage value, but these lands were not considered for inclusion into DuPont Forest since it was not immediately contiguous to the larger DuPont tracts. Ultimately, TCF desired to sell the property to pursue other higher priority conservation projects in the state. The tract had a number of interested buyers, including Congressman Charles Taylor.
“For 15 years, we had been trying to figure out how to conserve that property,” said Townsend Birdsong. Then five years ago, the Birdsongs had a discussion with their friend Johnny Warren, a South Carolina attorney whose children had attended Camp High Rocks. “He really helped us get the ball rolling with the project.”
“We decided to say, 'Let's get serious about it,' ” Townsend Birdsong recalled. “We had been wanting to do this for a long time, and we were worried something else might happen to it. TCF wanted it to be protected, but any potential buyer could have approached them and made an offer.”
The Birdsongs, Warren and other supportive members of the community formed Rich Mountain Conservancy, a nonprofit to raise funds and advocate for the property's protection.
“The community stepped up with support. People who we didn't even know sent in money because they believed in the project like we did,” Townsend said.
It took the group just two years to raise the funding needed to purchase the Rich Mountain tract. “It was one of the fastest fundraising projects we've ever been involved with,” she said. “It was very successful, and we're very proud.”
TCF's sale of the property to the community members required that it be placed in a permanent conservation easement to forever protect it from development. The perpetual easement ensures against future subdivision of the tract, and prevents human impact that might have a negative impact on its natural heritage. This includes the building of structures, excavation of its slopes or commercially timbering its forests.
Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy was sought as a partner to oversee and enact the tract's long-term conservation by holding the easement.
“CMLC really stepped up and held the easement for us,” Townsend Birdsong said. “It was huge.”
The conservation of Rich Mountain was finally achieved in 2010 with the community group's purchase of the tract. CMLC now protects 147 acres of the mountain's south slopes via a conservation easement. The conservation easement is one of seven held by CMLC on area summer camps.
The Birdsongs and Rich Mountain Conservancy added an additional four acres to the tract last year with the purchase of the summit itself.
“It's important to me that what my parents started here is continued,” Townsend Birdsong said, reflecting on the project that will have a long-lasting effect on not just the camp, but the entire region.
Thanks to her efforts — and that of impassioned community members and CMLC — to protect Rich Mountain, it will look the same as it always has. Forever.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.