CMLC Founding Father John Humphrey Stands For Conservation

“Well, everything is a long story,” explained unassuming and soft-spoken John Humphrey as he gazed across his picturesque Mills River farm. At age 95, Humphrey has a lot of stories to tell.  But sometimes the story isn’t about what has happened on the land itself, but the impact to the land made by that of an individual. Humphrey’s far-reaching role in protecting western North Carolina is certainly story in and of itself.

Raised in urban New Jersey, Humphrey’s love affair with the rural countryside was unlikely.  It was his immersion amongst the Appalachian mountains at an early age that planted a seed that would one day grow into a passion for conservation.  “At summer camp, I was exposed to wildlife, trees, mountains and hiking,” he explained.  But if his love for protecting the land was born then, he didn’t know it.  A career in chemical engineering and instrument sales brought him to rural Mills River in 1968.  Once on the farm, interest for his land began to blossom. 

Humphrey developed a deep connection with his land, and he soon realized had that it might lead to something long-lasting.  Then in 1996, he donated a conservation easement on 180 acres of his mountain farm to Henderson County’s newly formed Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC).  It was CMLC’s inaugural conservation project and proved to be the springboard for a movement of preserving land in our region that is still going strong today.

Nestled in a secluded valley between two high ridges, Humphrey’s property features both lush forests and scenic farmland.  But its conservation protected more than its beautiful landscape alone. The easement safeguarded water quality on Foster Creek, a headwater tributary of the Mills River—which provides drinking water to nearly 100,000 residents of Henderson and Buncombe Counties.  A rare southern-Appalachian bog and nearly 300 species of plants and animals also find safe harbor on his farm.

Humphrey’s enthusiasm for conserving his property is exceeded only by his passion to care for it. Managing its resources and educating himself is a process for which he has never tired.  “I’m always trying to learn more about what the care of the land is all about,” he explained.  And the nonagenarian remains as sharp as ever.  “This is the only sassafras tree on the entire property,” Humphrey told me while pointing at a tall grey trunk at his farm.  Standing among a forest of trees seemingly numbered in the millions, I suspected he was telling a tall tale.  But Humphrey knows his land like the back of his hand, and he knew his statement as a fact.  One might suspect that the land itself is what keeps him so keen.  

Preserving and caring for his farm alone is only a chapter in the story of Humphrey’s impact to the land.  Following the preservation of his farm, he immersed himself in CMLC’s mission—protecting land and water resources by permanently conserving and actively caring for a regional network of farm, forest and park lands.  Humphrey educated himself on easements, land acquisitions, and the inner workings of a conservation organization.  He has gone on to serve twelve years (and running) on CMLC’s board—including two terms as its esteemed president.

Humphrey’s enthusiasm for conservation proved contagious.  Convincing his neighbors to work with CMLC to convey conservation easements on adjacent properties, his farm ultimately became the anchor tract of more than 750 acres of land protected by CMLC in the Mills River watershed. Since John’s maiden conservation easement in 1996, CMLC has aided more than one hundred private landowners as well as local and regional government agencies in conserving more than 23,000 acres of land in Henderson, Transylvania and surrounding counties.

In 2005, Humphrey’s unparalleled commitment to conservation ran so deep, he bet the farm on it—literally.  Risking his personal assets to enable CMLC to purchase the 1,568-acre Worlds Edge tract in Rutherford County—now a part of Chimney Rock State Park—he willingly offered up his Mills River farm as loan collateral.

Whether preserving his own property, passionately managing his land or influencing others to pursue a path of conservation, Humphrey represents the heart and soul of protecting our region’s natural resources.  Far more than a founding father of CMLC, John represents conservation at its core.

In the face of rapid development that is transforming our region’s landscape, western North Carolina is fortunate to have Humphrey caring for its mountains.  The future of the region will be bright should more of its residents follow John’s lead.  And he is optimistic.  “Well, maybe more of them will if we keep after it,” he said.

A venerable 150-year old white oak in Flat Rock’s Ironwood Square now bears Humphrey’s name in honor of his service to our region.  The tree’s roots run deep in the land while its trunk stands strong among ever present change.  Its branches are forever reaching for new heights.  It’s a perfect tribute to John Humphrey, a hero of conservation in western North Carlolina.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at

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