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NC’s Headwaters State Forest Opens

leah kirk

NC’s Headwaters State Forest Opens.jpg

The official unveiling Thursday of Headwaters State Forest, North Carolina’s newest swath of conservation land. The forest sprawls across 6,730 acres through mixed hardwood forest surrounding the French Broad River headwaters.

It’s not every day such a large parcel of undeveloped property is added to public conservation lands. Headwaters is now the 10th forest managed by the North Carolina Forest Service, a division of N.C. Department of Agriculture. The last established was DuPont State Recreational Forest in 2000.

Headwaters range from about 2,000 to 3,600 feet in elevation and are crisscrossed with streams, waterfalls, and hiking trails near the South Carolina border. It will help preserve and maintain water quality in the headwaters of the French Broad River, which flows 218 miles from Transylvania County into Tennessee.

The newly established Headwaters State Forest covers 6,730 acres in Transylvania County. The land deal leading to Headwaters creation has been nearly a decade in the making. Efforts to protect the area began in 2009 when The Conservation Fund worked with N.C. Forest Service and Conserving Carolina, a Hendersonville-based land trust, to negotiate a contract to purchase up to 8,000 acres for the state in a sale from former Congressman Charles Taylor and his family.

N.C. Forest Service partnered with Conserving Carolina and The Conservation Fund to acquire the land. Funding for the acquisitions came through N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, former N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund and the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, which is funded by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“Headwaters State Forest is a classic example of the importance of the 50-year-old fund, and how local economies can benefit,” said Jay Leutze, president of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy in Asheville, a member of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition.

The parcel includes a driving tour through the new forest. It includes the now-under-construction Sassafras Mountain Observation Platform, on the 3,553-foot-high summit just off the Foothills Trail, with views sweeping across the Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway, as far as Mount Pisgah, as well as into South Carolina and Lake Jocassee.

 “It’s the headwaters of the French Broad River, a drinking water source, and a recreation source,” Cheek said. “There are 60 miles of streams that all flow into the French Broad. Protecting the headwaters is the most important aspect of protecting the forest.”

In addition to filtering water to keep it clean for drinking, tubing or floating, the streams on the property are now open to trout fishing, and form at least 25 waterfalls, three of which are named – Gravely Mill, East Fork Falls and Reese Place Falls.

There are some 25 miles of old roads and trails, including 9 miles of the Foothills Trail. The forest is not open to mountain bikes or horseback riders. Camping is not allowed. One of the main access points is the White Oak Bridge Access off Glady Fork Road, about 10 miles south of Brevard, which leads to the 40-foot-high Gravely Mill Falls.

This is a no-frills forest. It will remain pretty much in its current state. While some parking areas are planned, there will not be any structures such as visitor centers or bathrooms that can be found in DuPont or Holmes State Educational Forest, Cheek said and will be managed differently than those forests. The mission of Headwaters State Forest is to manage the lands to provide high-quality water, natural resources, forest products, dispersed recreation opportunities, and education.