Originally in The Asheville Citizen-Times

March 12, 2020

Some 20 years after a proposed NASCAR track on Chestnut Mountain in Haywood County ran out of gas, the forested, mountainous land outside Canton is now looking to attract the more environmentally friendly sports of hiking and mountain biking.

And is expecting just as much interest, visitors and economic impact as fast cars.

A grant of $150,000 to protect 448 acres and 9 miles of stream, about 20 minutes west of Asheville, was one of four major land protection grants announced March 11 by Attorney General Josh Stein, speaking at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy offices in North Asheville.

The four Environmental Enhancement Grants total nearly $500,000 for projects in Western North Carolina to protect water quality, wildlife habitat, trout streams, rare mountain bogs and to create public parks for more outdoor recreation opportunities closer to town centers.

“Today is a big day for natural resources in WNC, distributed through the Environmental Enhancement Grants Program at the Department of Justice,” Stein said.

The program began in 2000 through an agreement with Smithfield Foods and the attorney general’s office; Smithfield provides the state $2 million a year to fund environmental projects across the state.

This is the first year since 2016 that the EEG program has been able to provide the grants, Stein said, because of a lawsuit by Civitas, a conservative think tank, which sued to have money from the EEG go to school funding instead.

The state won the lawsuit, and the program is now back on track, Stein said.

“Since the program started we’ve awarded more than $25 million to more than 100 projects around the state,” he said. "We knew that there was pent up demand for high quality ideas and initiatives and we will see them here.”

In the past 20 years, 10 projects have been awarded to WNC. This year, Stein will distribute more than $3.5 million to 27 grantees.

“As attorney general, my job is to protect North Carolinians, including the air that we breathe and the water we drink, and it is my honor to stand alongside you all as we do the important work to preserve our natural resources,” he said to the land trusts, environmental groups and town and country representatives present.

Stein said a “broad team” of people from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, as well as other nongovernmental environmental experts, review the applications, looking to maximize the amount of leverage each project can get for dollars in terms of enhancing the environment.

“Generally clean water is our primary objective, but we are open to other types of initiatives,” he said.

From NASCAR to nature preserve

The Chestnut Mountain project is a joint venture among the SAHC, a nonprofit land trust, Haywood County and the town of Canton.

The tract was slated in the early 2000s for an 8,300-seat grandstand motorsports speedway.

SAHC is in the process of purchasing the property for conservation of animal habitat, protection of water resources, and to reserve for future public recreation. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund also awarded $1.2 million toward the purchase of the property.

“We first became interested in the property because it’s on an important wildlife corridor that runs the Haywood-Buncombe ridgeline. Wildlife love to run on ridges,” said Hanni Muerdter, SAHC conservation director.

“This is one of the largest, last remaining tracts on that corridor and then because of its access to U.S. 19/23 and I-40 and its proximity to Canton, we thought, ‘Does this have recreation potential?’

"Haywood County is lucky to have a lot of public and protected land but it’s on the outskirts and edges of the county and there’s not many large acreage places where you can get out and enjoy nature really close to the population centers of Canton or Waynesville,” she said.

After purchasing the property, SAHC plans to gift the land to the town of Canton, to manage as a conservation-based public outdoor recreation park in partnership with Haywood County. Streams and habitat on the tract will remain permanently protected through conservation easements, and outdoor recreation prospects will be activities that work with conservation of the property.

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers could barely contain his excitement at the announcement, saying the EEG will help not only the environment, but the economy of the town and the country.

“We’re still a blue-collar manufacturing town. As Asheville moves our way, we’re adding restaurants and businesses and growing more, but not losing our identity. Part of our identity in the mountains is outdoor recreation, hiking and biking,” said Smathers, whose sentiments were echoed by David Francis, Haywood County program administrator.

“The other major story is that this will send a signal across the county and the region of economic development. We’re very excited to get the auxiliary businesses connected to this, the bike shops, additional breweries, restaurants, outdoor shops. This will be a major economic furnace,” he said.

It will take time until the property is completely purchased, and feasibility studies are done, he said, but he hopes to see some movement within the year.

“We see this as a world-class property. Many times my friends and will go to DuPont State Forest to hike and bike, then got to Sierra Nevada. My personal goal is to give the residents of Haywood County that same opportunity, but have it in Canton.”

Other WNC environment awards:

Buncombe County: Conserving Carolina will receive $200,000 to conserve 247 acres at the top of the Broad River Watershed, including 12,500 linear feet of headwater stream and 3.5 acres of wetland that feeds N.C. Department of Environmental Quality trout water.

“This generous award from EEG will help conserve a critical tract in the upper Broad River watershed and support the establishment of a technical education campus for high school students from across the region who are interested in pursuing careers in natural resource and environmental fields,” said Kieran Roe, Executive Director of Conserving Carolina.

Burke County: Foothills Conservancy will receive $100,000 to acquire 651 acres of undeveloped forest and agricultural lands, including more than three miles of stream in Canoe Creek watershed to be used for a public park and forest.

"We decided, why don’t we do a conservation project close to Morganton, in a rural community, not just for conservation resources, watershed resources, but open it up as a preservation-type park and develop recreation trails, forest restoration, environmental education, and community agriculture and make it available to people regardless of their demographic," said Foothills Conservancy executive director Andrew Kota.

Alleghany County: With its grant award of $32,000 Blue Ridge Conservancy will purchase and conserve 46 acres to be added to the Sparta Wetland Mitigation Site. Doing so will protect the low elevation seep, swamp forest-bog complex, the federally endangered bog turtle, 8.5 acres of high quality wetland, and more than 4,500 linear feet of stream.

"Southern Appalachian Bogs are extremely rare and remain a conservation priority for Blue Ridge Conservancy," said Blue Ridge Conservancy Executive Director Charlie Brady. "EEG's investment in land conservation will help maintain the High Country's excellent water quality for drinking water, recreation, and aquatic life."