/ Stories of the Land,

Ballad of Saving Worlds Edge

A Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy success story retold

Photo by Kevin Adams

Worlds Edge — an intriguing name, a stunning view, a treasure trove of natural wonders, a moving conservation success story, the cornerstone of a new state park.

For no other locale do I receive more inquiries at Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy from local residents, regional visitors, and curious adventurers. With that in mind, I’m excited to share the compelling story of the conservation of the tract of land with the alluring name and million-dollar — $16 million, to be exact — view.

My research isn’t new — this story has been told before. But it has become evident to me that too few people have heard it, and those that have might not mind hearing it once more.

All too often, land that has been protected and made available for our enjoyment eventually comes to be taken for granted — the stories of the heroic efforts and sacrifices to conserve it are forgotten in a startlingly short period of time. Priceless gems such as DuPont State Recreational Forest and Chimney Rock State Park were once on the brink of having their natural beauty spoiled and the public’s access to their wonders cut off. It never hurts to revisit, and give thanks for, the stories that led to these lands permanent preservation as assets to our region.

Standing at the Edge

Worlds Edge is a series of cliffs on the southern Blue Ridge Escarpment, where the highlands of Western North Carolina rise up dramatically from the relatively flat Piedmont plateau. No doubt that the cliffs were named for the exhilarating feeling one experiences when overlooking the precipitous drop of more than a thousand feet to the lowlands below — that of standing at the edge of the world. The Worlds Edge cliffs begin near Sugarloaf Mountain where the boundaries of Henderson, Rutherford and Polk counties intersect, east of Edneyville and southwest of Lake Lure.

While the name Worlds Edge most commonly refers to the cliffs, I use it here to refer to the entirety of a 1,568-acre tract that encompasses the cliffs as well as a plethora of other unspoiled natural features such as granite outcroppings, sparkling waterfalls and rare species of flora and fauna. The property was owned by Robert Haywood Morrison, a Charlotte businessman, who purchased it specifically to conserve its remarkable natural heritage.

But when Morrison passed away in 2005, he left no provision for the formal conservation of his beloved Worlds Edge. The executrix of Morrison’s estate, Cynthia Tyson, had a fiduciary duty to his heirs to ensure that this land yielded the greatest profit possible. Quickly, the tract drew considerable interest from real estate developers.

Nearby resident and CMLC board member Diana Richards knew the great value of the tract’s natural heritage. “It’s a very dramatic land filled with huge boulders, rocky balds and outcroppings, and caves. Waterfalls are everywhere. It’s a very rich ecosystem,” Richards said. But she was mortified that its unspoiled character might soon be lost.

“It was disconcerting because helicopters were passing over all of the time, scoping out the land. Everyone was just there to pounce on it,” she explained. A real estate developer interested in constructing an expansive residential development soon offered $16 million. “And then along comes the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy,” Richards said.

Race to save natural heritage

Tyson was familiar with CMLC, and suspected that the organization would be interested in preserving the Worlds Edge tract — and that it might be able to match the developer’s $16 million offer. But the clock was ticking.

The state of North Carolina was interested in purchasing Worlds Edge for inclusion in a new state park at Chimney Rock, but was unable to allocate the funding in time to outbid the developer. If CMLC could move quickly enough, the state would agree to purchase the tract back from it later.

A national conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy, pledged $10 million, which left the final $6 million for CMLC to raise. And it had only one month to do it.

“What happened then was a very interesting set of events, and it brought together a coalition of public, private and governmental agencies which had never come together before,” said Lake Lure resident and former CMLC board president Bob Wald.

Two organizations, Open Space Institute and Self Help Credit Union, agreed to loan CMLC the remaining sum. But they required that those loans be collateralized and guaranteed. While the lenders agreed that the land itself had a $3 million value, CMLC would need to come up with an additional $3 million of collateral. Meanwhile, the deadline to match the developer’s offer grew ever nearer.

Through the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and private individuals, including Fred and Alice Stanback, Bill and Nancy Stanback, and Donald and Lisbeth Cooper, $2.5 million was raised.

“And then we were plumb out of luck,” Wald said. “We had to come up with another half million dollars to make this happen, and soon.”

Unparalleled commitment

“The only way I knew how to do it was to make the commitment to put up my own money to meet the collateral, and then challenge CMLC members to (do the same),” explained then-CMLC board president Jim Neal.

That’s when CMLC supporters demonstrated an unprecedented commitment to land conservation. Without hesitation, members risked personal assets at potential detriment to their own livelihoods in an effort to ensure that Worlds Edge would be saved from development.

“My wife, Jerry, and I looked at it as, ‘it was time to fish or cut bait,’ ” said former board member Bill McAninch. “If we were going to do something for the environment, this was our opportunity to do it. So we put our savings up as part of the escrow assets, and just hoped that it would all work out.”

CMLC conservation landowner and longtime board member John Humphrey was willing to put up his entire farm as collateral. Worlds Edge “was a gem. And it needed to be preserved. So I decided that the principal asset that I had to use was my (farm),” Humphrey said. “I decided … why not pledge part of the property value? And that’s what I did.”

Many others followed suit — 10 individuals in all — in support and self-sacrifice. Soon, CMLC had done all it could. From family farms to retirement funds, these dedicated few put their own worth on the line in the race to save Worlds Edge.

Worlds Edge protected

“They actually came up with $16.1 million to come right over the developer’s sum — and in the space of one month,” Richards said. “The willingness of so many different groups and individuals to come together for this one common good — this particular piece of land — was remarkable.”

“Acquiring this magnificent property is a triumph for our region’s people and our natural heritage,” said Kieran Roe, CMLC executive director. “It shows what can happen when private donors, conservation organizations and state government come together to preserve our state’s most precious land and water resources.”

Cynthia Tyson believes that the conservation of Worlds Edge pays tribute to its former owner. “From his youth, Robert Haywood Morrison took an intense interest in the natural world, particularly the terrain and flora of Western North Carolina, where he grew up. He would be proud to know that Worlds Edge will be forever protected.”

Long-term significance

In addition to the precedent of expansive partnerships and the identification of such considerable funding in such a short period of time, the conservation of Worlds Edge was a landmark accomplishment for many other reasons.

Foremost, the project was the first land protection project of such magnitude undertaken by the small, Hendersonville-based nonprofit, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, and it elevated the land trust’s mission to that of protecting our region’s natural heritage on a landscape scale.

In fact, just three years later, CMLC would save another landscape-scale tract opposite Worlds Edge on the other side of the Hickory Nut Gorge. The land trust purchased 1,527 acres — part of a failed housing development — at Weed Patch Mountain from a bankruptcy court in 2009. Today, CMLC is a prominent partner in the conservation of the 8,000-acre East Fork Headwaters tract in Transylvania County — perhaps WNC’s largest remaining undeveloped contiguous tract of land.

Even more significantly, the initial purchase of Worlds Edge provided a critical foundation for the formation of Chimney Rock State Park. The tract was the first major acquisition of a newly authorized state park in the Hickory Nut Gorge, and its preservation initiated significant momentum for the state’s eventual purchase of Chimney Rock Park itself, as well as other adjoining tracts with considerable conservation and scenic value. Today, Chimney Rock State Park encompasses about 5,700 acres in the Hickory Nut Gorge, and is one of the crown jewels of North Carolina’s state park system.

But most importantly, the effort to overcome the many challenges to ultimately save Worlds Edge showed that a dedicated few can make a difference and protect the precious natural heritage of our region.

Peter Barr is the trails and outreach coordinator for Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.