Stories of the Land: Seeds that Grew a Forest

‘Every once in a while the stars align,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady when he reflected back on the auspicious series of events resulting in the establishment of DuPont State Recreational Forest (SRF).

For nearly two decades, DuPont SRF has been a crown jewel of Henderson and Transylvania counties. Since its creation, it has become a cherished part of our local heritage, an economic engine luring visitors to the region, and a source of rejuvenation and inspiration among all who seek out its natural splendor.

But DuPont SRF’s tenure as beloved public land has matured to the point where memory of its origins has begun to fade among many. Said McGrady, “There are some who assume that it has always been open to the public. A lot of people have forgotten how it happened and who is responsible.”

The DuPont Corp. began manufacturing X-ray film in 1958 in what is now present-day DuPont SRF. The company chose the site largely for its supply of clean water — available from the Little River and its tributaries — necessary for its manufacturing process.

When newer technology reduced the need for medical imaging film by the mid-1990s, DuPont elected to sell its Cedar Mountain plant and vast surrounding land holdings.

But because the site had been private for decades and was hidden from most by its remote location, its natural treasures weren’t particularly well-known among the community.

“So few people knew what was there except DuPont employees,” said McGrady. “Not many knew it was worth protecting.”

At least they didn’t know initially. “And then along came young Jeff Jennings,” he recalled.

Jennings was an engineer for the DuPont Corp. who moved to the region in 1991. His interest in the environment led him to become involved with the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO) in Hendersonville.

“One day I came to work, and they announced that the plant was for sale and that they were separating 7,600 acres of land away from the factory,” Jennings said. “It was assumed that private developers would purchase the property. It was imminently developable, and the real estate market was doing well at that time.”

Driven by his firsthand knowledge of the significant — albeit little-known — natural features of the property, Jennings sprung into action in the summer of 1995.

“The first and most important thing that I did was consult the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) and Chuck McGrady,” said Jennings, who at the time was serving as president of ECO.

CMLC — then the Natural Heritage Trust of Henderson County — was then only a year-old land trust that had yet to complete its first conservation project. McGrady was the organization’s incoming board president.

At a meeting that July, Jennings presented the news of the impending sale of the DuPont land to McGrady and fellow board members. His pursuit of CMLC’s help to protect it proved to be an easy sale. As it turned out, the natural significance of the land was on the radar among a few other conservation-minded individuals.

In addition to McGrady, founding CMLC mother Anne Ulinski of Flat Rock and DuPont employee Bill Thomas of Cedar Mountain had firsthand knowledge of the property and were immediately strong proponents of conserving it.

“There were people interested in protecting it before me. Anne already had a folder all about the tract and what was there,” recalled Jennings. “And Bill, who was a prominent activist with the Sierra Club — and ultimately CMLC — had been in touch with the state about its significant ecological communities.”

But the degree to which CMLC could be helpful was uncertain. “At that point, we barely existed. CMLC was just a board with no staff. We were still trying to figure out how to do our first project,” McGrady said. “We had no money. It was a chicken and egg problem. We needed a project to get money, but we couldn’t do a project unless we had money.”

It was at that time that a serendipitous pairing occurred. McGrady’s longtime friend Rex Boner worked for The Conservation Fund (TCF). “I had invited him to spend the night at my house during that time. As chance would have it, CMLC happened to have a board meeting while he was here, so I invited him along.”

“As chance would have it again, Jeff Jennings was at that meeting asking CMLC if the land trust could play a role in DuPont,” explained McGrady. “That’s when I had a sense the stars were aligning.”

McGrady couldn’t believe the fortune of the chance meeting. He learned that Boner already had Delaware-based contacts with the DuPont Corp. that would enable negotiations to purchase the land for conservation to begin quickly.

Jennings and Boner contacted DuPont’s Land Legacy division, which had a precedent of agreeing to bargain sales — selling property below its market value — to achieve conservation among some of their other land holdings.

“It just felt right with Rex, Jeff, and DuPont coming together,” said McGrady. “And CMLC was the facilitator of it all. They provided the forum.”

By the next year, TCF had reached a deal with DuPont for the bargain sale of 7,600 acres in Western North Carolina. In 1997, TCF then transferred the land to the State of North Carolina, which purchased it for $2.2 million — less than $300 an acre — with funding from the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund. That quickly, DuPont State Forest became a reality.

The new state forest — managed by the N.C. Forest Service — comprised nearly three-quarters of DuPont’s total land holdings at the site. The tract known as the “doughnut” — because 2,000 acres in its center remained private — hosted a plethora of natural treasures including picturesque Hooker and Wintergreen Falls and the scenic summit of Stone Mountain.

“I can’t recall a single negative reaction to the news. At such a great price from DuPont, who is going to complain?” Jennings asked.

Several years later, the state’s acquisition of a second phase of DuPont land — 2,200 acres comprising the “hole in the doughnut” that included Bridal Veil, Triple and High Falls — gained far more attention than the equally, if not more, significant and larger initial acquisition.

“The first, and primary, acquisition was non-controversial,” Jennings said. “There was nobody that didn’t win.”

For fledgling CMLC, the project was a landmark effort that served as a springboard for further conservation in our region — eventually leading to 28,000 acres of protected lands, and counting.

“I’ve always credited them with playing an instrumental role in creating DuPont SRF, Jennings said.

McGrady agreed. “An organization like CMLC starts out by taking baby steps. One of the first bigger steps it took was its role in DuPont. It gave people a vision and made people feel like we could accomplish something.

“TCF worked the deal and found the funding. But CMLC was the local entity that assembled the partners,” he added. “It was really the first time that the land trust was involved in something big. It was a great precursor to the work to come.”

CMLC’s involvement in DuPont SRF, noted McGrady, was also the catalyst for the organization to expand its geographic reach beyond Henderson County to Transylvania County and the Hickory Nut Gorge. “We realized that we couldn’t approach conservation that (narrowly). The natural communities and resources that we wanted to protect don’t always know our political boundaries.”

McGrady smiled at the fortune of how DuPont SRF went from an idea among a few, to a collaborative effort among many, and ultimately a treasure to all. “Looking back, it was one of those moments where you sit there and go ‘wow, how did this happen?’”

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

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