ASHEVILLE – When locals speak of Sandy Mush, it’s often in the same breath with words like “sacred land,” “pure,” and “paradise.”
So protecting this bucolic expanse of farmland amid the Newfound Mountains of northwestern Buncombe County has been a life’s work for many who live in or who just love the area.
Pattie and Ed Ellis, their niece Kate Tierney and wife Kara Powis, recently worked with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to protect 88 acres of their land in Boyd Cove with a conservation easement that ensures plant and animal habitat and water sources will remain forever undisturbed and free from development.
The cove is covered in montane oak-hickory and rich cove forests ranging in elevation from 2,920 to 3,840 feet, is splashed with seeps and springs and more than 5,580 feet of streams that feed Long Branch, a tributary to Sandy Mush Creek, which is a direct tributary of the French Broad River.
Long Branch and Sandy Mush creeks are classified as protected trout waters for their ability to sustain year-round trout populations.
Protecting the land through a conservation easement – which allows the landowners to maintain ownership but restricts development – will help prevent sedimentation and other types of pollution from entering the French Broad River watershed, and will protect habitat for wildlife, including rare and endangered species, said Michelle Pugliese, SAHC’s land protection director.
Pugliese said the Ellises have documented more than 100 species of plants and animals during their nearly 40 years on the property, including the hellbender salamander, a federal species of concern, and peregrine falcon, a North Carolina endangered species.
Pattie and Ed Ellis moved to Boyd Cove in 1981, wanting to raise their two sons working the land and living close to the earth.
“When we found Sandy Mush, it felt like home. People were very friendly and helpful, and the boys learned a lot of life skills. Everyone chipped in. We learned to live off the land and gained a great respect for it,” Pattie Ellis said in a statement.
“Boyd Cove is a very special, pure place, and we want it to remain that way forever. With this conservation easement, we are comforted in knowing that when we are no longer here — and even after our grandchildren or great-grandchildren are gone — it will still be protected.”
The property was once used as a tobacco farm. The historic barn where tobacco hung to dry remains.
Boyd Cove adjoins SAHC’s Robinson Rough Preserve within a network of conservation lands that include the Long Branch Environmental Education Center, Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, Little Sandy Mush Bald Preserve, and other privately-owned properties.
The property is within five miles of three North Carolina Natural Heritage Natural Areas: Raven Cliff, Crabtree Bald and Canton Watershed/The Glades.
Stitching together small pieces of conservation land is important in creating a larger, contiguous landscape to support wildlife habitat and biodiversity, which is always under threat due to ever-increasing development.
“It’s such a beautiful valley. There is Forest Service land nearby, but inside Sandy Mush there wasn’t an anchor of protected land. There’s nothing stopping it from being completely developed. We started with a piecemeal approach, protecting all these little pockets of land,” said Angela Shepherd, SAHC communications director.
“A lot of landowners, the county, SAHC and others working together recognized how beautiful and valuable it is for farming and for the French Broad River watershed. These landowners stepping up and saying this is important and we want to see it there for future generation, that’s so inspiring.”
The total cost of the easement was not disclosed, but Pugliese said it was funded through a $35,000 grant from Buncombe County, generous philanthropic gift from Brad and Shelli Stanback, and a significant donation from the landowners themselves.