Asheville-Citizen Times Jan. 25, 2005

State to preserve 2,600 acres

By Leslie Boyd

ASHEVILLE - A 2,600-acre tract in Sandy Mush near the border of Buncombe and Madison counties has been sold to the state, which will protect it permanently from development.

Progress Energy, which owned the land, bought it about 30 years ago with plans to build a power plant there, said Robert Sipes, vice president of the western region for Progress Energy Carolinas.

"Eventually ... it was decided that property wasn't right for a power plant," he said.

The utility company leased a portion of the land to area farmers for cattle grazing, Sipes said, but much of it remained pristine.

The state Ecosystem Enhancement Program contributed $9.2 million to the $10.2 million price. The state program worked with the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and conservation philanthropists Fred and Alice Stanback, who donated the other $1 million.

The Ecosystem Enhancement Program is an initiative of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the N.C. Department of Transportation that pays for the restoration of wetlands and streams and permanently preserves high-quality streams and wetlands with the cooperation of landowners. It uses federal and state highway money to offset environmental damage caused by road improvements and other transportation projects.

The Sandy Mush land contains more than 30 miles of streams and is home to a number of plant and animal species, including the piratebush, a species of federal concern that is found in only a few sites in the Southern Appalachians.

"Part of this land is in very pristine condition and we're very excited about it staying that way," said David Ray, Lands Program director at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. "Some of it needs stream-bank restoration, and that will happen now."

The land is in Leicester, less than 20 miles from downtown Asheville. Ray said the population in Leicester increased 37 percent between 1990 and 2000, and the land is near a rapidly developing area.

The land will be available for public use, but Ray didn't know exactly what the state plans to do with it.

"I just know it won't be developed," Ray said. "That's the important thing."