Conservation With a View

— Written By

The staff of N.C. Cooperative Extension of Watauga County was recently invited to tour a new parcel of property acquired by the Blue Ridge Conservancy. Wendy Patoprsty, former Water Resources Agent with Cooperative Extension, who now works for the conservancy on the Middle Fork Greenway and other projects, led the tour along with BRC’s Eric Hiegl, Director of Land Protection and Stewardship. We hiked a ridge spine trail from Seven Devils to an incredible 300+ degree view of Grandfather Mountain and the mountains around Banner Elk. Known as “Peak Mountain”, the 91 acres was originally part of the planned Tynecastle development. The property, previously owned by the Schwebke Family of Avery County, includes a dramatic ridgeline, healthy forest and wildlife populations, and has been identified as a significant natural area by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program.

Peak Mountain Vista

Watauga Extension at the Peak Mountain property, recently acquired by Blue Ridge Conservancy

Blue Ridge Conservancy is a private, non-profit, non-governmental organization incorporated in North Carolina. Since their founding, they have protected over 20,000 acres in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes, and Yancey Counties in the High Country region of western North Carolina. In addition to protecting working farmland, BRC’s efforts have resulted in the creation of state natural areas like Beech Creek Bog, Bear Paw, and Bullhead Mountain. They continue to help Elk Knob State Park and Grandfather Mountain State Park expand their borders and have led the way in establishing a 3,600-acre State Game Land preserve on Pond Mountain in Ashe County.

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Panoramic view from Peak Mountain.

Due to an unprecedented pace of development across North Carolina’s northwestern mountains, the Blue Ridge Conservancy’s goal is to conserve land with significant ecological, cultural, recreational, or scenic value in the North Carolina High Country—by acquiring land through direct purchase or placing land in conservation easements. Conservation easements or conservation agreements are legal agreements between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. However, they allow landowners to continue to own and use their land, and they can also sell it or pass it on to heirs. For example, if you had farm property that you wanted to preserve, while you might give up the right to build additional structures, you can still retain the right to grow crops. Future owners also will be bound by the easement’s terms. The land trust is responsible for making sure the easement’s terms are followed, and they manage the land through “stewardship.”

While conservation easements are sometimes misunderstood as “giving up rights to your own land,” they offer great flexibility. A conservation easement is a voluntary, though legally enforceable agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency wherein the landowner permanently separates certain ownership rights from a particular tract of land. A grantee, like Blue Ridge Conservancy, then agrees to monitor the land for the purpose of ensuring that the provisions of the agreement are honored. The easement is recorded at the county or town records office so that all future owners and lenders will learn about the restrictions when they obtain title reports. Most often easements are donated along with a cash gift to partially cover its maintenance cost. An easement on property containing rare wildlife habitat might prohibit any development, for example, while an easement on a farm might allow continued farming and the addition of agricultural structures. An easement may apply to all or a portion of the property, and need not require or allow public access.

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Margie Mansure, Watauga FCS Agent snaps photo of Grandfather Mountain with Eric Hiegl of Blue Ridge Conservancy and Kirsten Dillman

When it’s all said and done, a conservation easement assures the landowner that the resource values of his or her property will be protected forever, no matter who the future owners are. As you can see from the photos, for protecting scenic & wild natural areas, easements can be ‘priceless.’

For more information on conservation easements and the ongoing work of the Blue Ridge Conservancy, check them out at: Blue Ridge Conservancy