It's about as timeless a scene as any place can be these days -- and thanks to an ambitious partnership involving area residents, local nonprofits and government agencies, it just might stay that way.
Since the late 1990s, residents of the little community called Big Sandy Mush have chosen to give up the right to develop their property in exchange for cash payments -- and the satisfaction of knowing the land will remain rural for generations. With help from various land conservancies, the state of North Carolina, Buncombe County and private donors, more than 6,000 acres have been saved to date. And with still more agreements pending, Sandy Mush could be seen as a model for the power of agricultural preservation.
"Ever since we found the property in 1966, we've wanted to preserve it into perpetuity, so that it would be as beautiful in the future as it was then," explains Kate Jayne. She and her husband, Fairman, recently placed their entire 400-acre property (which also houses their business, the Sandy Mush Herb Nursery) into a conservation easement. "The time was right," says Jayne. "Things just seemed to jell."
Sandy Mush residents have been setting aside since the early 1990s, when Paul Gallimore of the Long Branch Environmental Education Center donated an easement on 600 acres of property to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. A more recent spate of transactions began in 2006, when Sandy Mush landowner Myrtle Duckett sold a conservation easement on 55 acres. Earlier this year, her brother Bill Duckett and his wife, Mabel, gave up development rights on 138 acres of their land, including a prominent ridgeline in the Newfound Mountains. Several other easements have followed, including the Jaynes'. Just last month, the conservancy announced that Joseph Allawos and Eva Scruggs, who own the 80-acre Sugar Creek Farm, and Ray Hearne, who's worked for years to root out invasives and restore native plants on her 62-acre tract, had completed conservation agreements with the conservancy.
A growing concern
It couldn't come at a better time. Because without sweeping conservation efforts, the conservancy warns, Western North Carolina will lose 500,000 acres of forests, farms, stream banks and wildlife habitat during the next 15 years -- a chunk of land nearly as large as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"These landowners have read the writing on the wall, and they're ready to move forward," says William Hamilton, who directs the group's farmland program. Hamilton calls saving farms "the next big thing" nationwide. Where conservation efforts once focused on pristine wild lands, groups like the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy are now increasingly recognizing farmland as a way to keep landscapes intact -- and productive.
"It's ensuring that we have a supply of healthy local food," he explains. "Preserving farmland fits right in with sustainability. Given the myriad of things that are happening to our environment, land conservancies are looking not only to preserve pristine properties but to preserve and encourage strong, healthy, local communities. We're moving into where people live and work and protecting human landscapes."
The crush of new development in Buncombe County and much of the rest of Western North Carolina is only the most recent threat to Sandy Mush. Two decades ago, the federal government was considering the area as a potential site for a nuclear-waste dump. That galvanized the community, which held meetings and rallies, creating what Jayne calls "a cohesiveness in this whole valley."
In addition, Sandy Mush is one of six areas in WNC and east Tennessee that the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy considers high priority. "Land trusts like to build out, working on adjacent properties, because it makes each project that much bigger," Hamilton explains. "Once a land trust gets a pretty good foothold in a community, it tends to snowball."
A model project
Although Buncombe County has had a Farmland Preservation Ordinance since 1989, it wasn't until 2005 that efforts to save farmland from development gathered speed -- and funds. That year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Research Initiative awarded the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Agency and the Land-of-Sky Regional Council a $500,000 grant, which became the seed money for the Farm Prosperity Project, whose two prongs are farmland viability and farmland preservation. Part of the money funded Hamilton's position at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.
Over the last two years, the Buncombe County commissioners have allocated $3.9 million for land conservation. To date, $3.5 million of those funds have been committed. But some of Sandy Mush's best friends may be philanthropists such as Asheville residents Brad and Shelli Stanback.
"We have some very generous donors who are specifically interested in that area," notes Hamilton. "It gives us a huge advantage when we try to leverage public funds, because ... we can say that private donors have contributed X amount -- as long as Buncombe County contributes a certain amount."
Meanwhile, the "snowball effect" cited by Hamilton looks to continue for some time. As of late December, another major easement -- on the Hearne family's 500-acre Willow Cove property -- was still pending in Sandy Mush. Other conservation easements funded there in 2007 include Keith Wells and Pearl Black's 500-acre Bee Branch property, the 72-acre Beth Shook property, and the 75-acre R.J. and Lillie Blazer property. Although landowners typically reduce the value of their property by selling off the development rights, the tax advantages they gain can help offset a portion of that loss. And they also acquire a major (if intangible) benefit -- the knowledge that they've preserved something precious for the future.
"Could we have sold it to someone else for a whole lot more? Of course," says Jayne. "But we wouldn't have. This is what we've always wanted."
As in past years, the Jaynes expect the herb nursery to continue playing host to visiting students -- both from local colleges such as A-B Tech, Haywood Community College and Warren Wilson College, and from learning programs farther afield, such as Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. And whatever new development those visitors may encounter on the way into Sandy Mush, the scene that will greet them once they enter the valley will be essentially unchanged, thanks to the foresight of the Jaynes and others.
"I think there's a great deal of appreciation for Sandy Mush as it's always been," she observes. "We're known as a place where people can see the Appalachians in a relatively undisturbed condition."
Hamilton echoes that sentiment, saying, "It's an intact rural landscape. It's not marred with three or four different land uses in one valley; it's agriculture and forestry. That's really it." And looking to the future, Hamilton notes, "If we keep this up, Buncombe County will have something to show off to the whole nation."