HENDERSONVILLE - Conservation of forest land in Gerton is making sure a never-logged forest remains intact, preserving trail views and rare habitats, according to Conserving Carolina.
The nonprofit land conservation group purchased more than 57 acres known as Chestnut Hills March 2, announcing plans to place the land into a conservation easement and manage it as a nature preserve to sustain a rich biodiversity and scenery enjoyed by hikers who make the trek to Wildcat Rock.
"It's a great tract," said Tom Fanslow, land protection director with Conserving Carolina. "It exemplifies the rich natural heritage of Hickory Nut Gorge, which is really special."
The gorge is about 20 miles southeast of Asheville along U.S. 74A.
It's one of the rare tracts in Western North Carolina spared from industrial logging, according to the release, with virtually no tree cutting on the property for 100 years or longer, home to mature forests, stream, boulders and rock outcrops, the group says it's home to a diverse habitat of plants and animals.
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Fanslow called it older growth, saying trees have been cut by individuals building log cabins, barns or split-rail fencing, or for firewood, but no wholesale clear cutting via bulldozers or chainsaws, and not since the establishment of the Chestnut Hills neighborhood in the 1920s.
"When we go on it, we see trees of a lot of different age classes, which is really healthy," he said, with trees over 100 years old on the property, and some quite a bit older.
The land connects more than 1,000 acres that Conserving Carolina has already protected in the upper Hickory Nut Gorge including the Wildcat Rock Trail, Bearwallow Mountain Trail and the Florence Nature Preserve, all part of its Hickory Nut Gorge State Trail seeking to connect the whole area with more than 100 miles of trail.
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It's bordered on one side by 73 acres conserved by Jane Lawson and the late John Myers and by 105 acres Conserving Carolina purchased from Lawson and Myers for conservation, Fanslow said.
The Chestnut Hills tract was purchased from Jim Earnhardt and his sister-in-law Barbara Earnhardt, whose family has owned the land since 1945 when it was purchased by partners N.C. English and Irwin Earnhardt, father of Jim Earnhardt and Barbara Earnhardt's late husband Gene Earnhardt.
At that time, Jim Earnhardt says in the Conserving Carolina release that crowns of dead American chestnut trees could still be seen standing above other trees in the forest, killed along with other chestnuts by a blight in the early 1900s.
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Experimental chestnut plantings continue in the 36-home neighborhood, Conserving Carolina says, where the Earnhardts live.
Barbara Earnhardt says in the release that her father-in-law and English believed in preserving land, and Jim Earnhardt says "we just didn't want to see it developed."
"Thanks to his love and concern for the land that he passes down to his sons, the land was never subjected to mechanized logging," Fanslow said, of Irwin Earnhardt.
Lori Williams, biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission says in the release that preserving the type of biodiversity found in Chestnut Hills is a top priority, helping to ensure the survival of rare species, including the green salamander.
Nearly all of it is ranked as an "exceptional" by the N.C. Natural Heritage program, according to the release, and scored a 10 out of 10 in the Biodiversity and Wildlife Habitat Assessment by the Wildlife Resources Commission.
The tract is home to three kinds of rare salamanders, all of which are in danger of extinction in North Carolina, according to the announcement, and with a connection to other protected forests, shaded slopes and variety of habitat types, can serve as a refuge for species that are shifting their range in response to climate change.
"It's a north-facing slope, which means it remains cooler and moister," Fanslow said. "It's in a gorge which has its own peculiar climate."
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The rock formations and boulders combined with those factors creates the consistently cool, moist habitat rare salamanders require, he said, and the more alkaline soil as opposed to the acidic soils that rhododendrons and mountain laurels like means a better habitat for a wider variety of plants.
It also means a more robust wildflower display in spring, Fanslow said.
A small turn of the Wildcat Rock Trail crosses onto the property, but he said there are no plans to put new trails onto the site because of the fragile habitat, he said.
Derek Lacey covers environment, growth and development for the Asheville Citizen Times. Reach him at [email protected] or 828-417-4842 and find him on Twitter @DerekAVL.