In the fall of 2000, I joined a group of old friends who had just purchased 4400 acres in western North Carolina. All of us were disciples of Charles Fraser, a premier green developer. We approached residential development as if he were looking over our shoulder.
What I’m going to tell you about is the 4400 acres as we found it–it’s history, the forest, the wild flowers, wildlife and the changing seasons. There are so many unique things about this property, but probably the most important is its location.
The mountains of western North Carolina are some of the oldest mountains in the World and were once higher than the Himalaya Mountains of today. Some peaks are the highest between the Rocky Mountains and the Swiss Alps.
This particular tract is on the western slope of Doubletop Mountain and ranges from 2700 feet to 5400 feet in elevation. Some of the artifacts found dated back over eleven thousand years. For the last hundred years it had been owned by The Champion Paper Company. They cut the timber in sections of 30 or 40 acres at a time as pulpwood for their nearby paper mill.
Therefore, the age of the forest ranged from as young as 15 years old to over 80 years old. The forest was never replanted after being harvested, so there were very few invasives. A hardwood forest will come back on its own, conifers in most cases must be replanted. The forest was therefore almost entirely hardwood with the exception of hemlocks.
There were 30 miles of reasonably good logging roads and another 70 miles of skidder trails that had been used to drag the logs to the main roads to be loaded on trucks. This network of roads, although often rough, made our exploration much easier.
The change in elevation of almost 3000′ often resulted in marked changes in temperature and therefore in vegetation. For example, trilliums could start blooming at 2700 feet in late April, but at 5000 feet–not until June.
Spring could last a long time as it worked its way up the mountain. The reverse was true in the fall, when the leaves started changing color on the mountain top and worked their way down to the lowest point. It also often snowed up high, but not a flake down lower on the mountain.
In preparation for development, we invited several experts to aid in our research. Western Carolina University was nearby, and the head of their botany department along with students from their graduate program conducted a survey of plant life. They cataloged over fifty varieties each of moss, ferns, and mushrooms. I don’t remember the number of tree varieties, plants and wildflowers, but it was an extensive list. Canadian honeysuckle was found above 5000 feet and thought to be the farthest south it had ever been found.
Another unusual find was mountain or rock tripe, one of the largest lichens in the world. It grows on rocks at high elevations and is edible, but only as a food of last choice. They also found four 80-foot Norwegian spruce growing at 5000 feet. This species is not native and must have been planted by Champion as an experiment.
When the chestnut blight hit this area, one out of every five trees was an American chestnut. They all died and the economy of the mountains was forever changed.
There were over forty miles of streams on the property. Twenty-one years ago, this was verified and mapped by students from Duke University. They started at the lowest elevation where water left the property, and, with GPS equipment, followed each stream to its source. Along the way, they measured the width and took water samples. The property is its own watershed, so all but one stream started from springs that naturally popped out of the mountain. The largest stream started on our neighbor’s property and was a Class A trout stream.
I know “development” to some is a bad word and, in many ways, I agree; but next week, I’d like to take you deep into how this wonderful forest was developed with as much care as possible.
To give you a clue, 3200 of the 4400 acres were put into a conservation easement–never to be developed.
MARYLAND IS OVER 50% FULLY VACCINATED — LET’S KEEP UP THE EFFORT.
Bill Minus is a storyteller who lives in Chestertown and writes about memories and observations.