Pond Mountain rises 5,000 feet above sea level in Ashe County, and views from its peak take in parts of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Appraised at $14 million, it’s worth less than it was a few years ago, making it even more attractive to preservationists. But here’s the rub: The down economy that has soured real-estate values has made it harder to raise public and private money to acquire land for the public. “If you’re forced to lay off teachers, you don’t want to be going out and buying tremendous amounts of property,” says Walter Clarke, executive director of West Jefferson-based Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust.
Land preservation is a big concern in western North Carolina. The region was responsible for at least a quarter of the state’s $22.2 billion travel-and-tourism industry in 2008, and four counties — Buncombe, Swain, Henderson and Watauga — each had more than $150 million in visitor spending and 1,500 or more tourism jobs. “Western North Carolina’s greatest economic resource is its beauty, and that’s the dilemma,” Clarke says. “So many people want to be here, how do you protect it?”
The answer has long been for preservation groups to buy threatened land or obtain conservation easements or trusts to forestall commercial development until the state can assume ownership. And seldom has there been a better time to buy. Last fall, The Nature Conservancy, the largest land-preservation nonprofit in the state, helped Hendersonville-based Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy purchase about 1,800 acres of a bankrupt project near Lake Lure for $2.5 million. Before the recession, the land had been appraised at $4.5 million.
Conservationists might get help with other parts of the equation this year. A federal tax break for landowners who don’t develop scenic property expired in December, but Congress appears likely to reinstitute it and make it retroactive.
Because that funding dried up last year, conservationists have a backlog of pending deals such as Pond Mountain to tackle before taking on new projects. Katherine Skinner, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina, guesses preservation groups have a window of five to seven years to buy land cheaply. “Once we take care of the backlog, we’ll be back in the market before you see an uptick in commercial development. That’s my bet.”
Snowfall lifts skiing
The ski season in western North Carolina pushed off slowly, with many slopes not opening until early December due to a dearth of flakes. Then it slipped on an icy patch during the holidays. But the state’s six ski resorts and two snow-tubing parks finished strong, thanks to major snowfalls in February and March. “The last four weeks of the season I don’t think they could have been better timed,” says Mike Doble, editor of SkiNC.com, a Web site that tracks the industry. “We’d have snowstorms that would fall Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. But on the weekends, the roads would be perfectly clear.” When all the numbers are in, he says, 2009-10 likely will surpass records set the previous year, despite tough times overall. “Snow always trumps the economy.”