The amount of money that Mainspring Conservation Trust paid a local group last month for an inholding in the Nantahala National Forest was $305,677 greater than the aggregate land value of the lots comprising their 49.32 acres, according to public records at courthouses in Murphy and in Hayesville, North Carolina.

“The actual sale price for the property sold to Mainspring was $525,000,” said attorney Merinda S. Woody of Hayesville.

But the executive director of Mainspring, a conservation trust that is based in Franklin, North Carolina, and has an office in Murphy, says the nonprofit did not pay too much for the land.

“Mainspring does not rely on tax assessments to establish fair market value of property,” said Sharon F. Taylor. “We determined we were not paying more than fair market value based on a certified appraisal, dated August 25 2017, valuing the four tracts at $500,600.”

For me at least, what it means is that Mainspring and its major donor, the Stanback Powder tycoon Fred Stanback of Charlotte, could drive harder bargains. If they did so, perhaps they could buy up and protect more of the islands of private land inside the 531,270-acre Nantahala National Forest. These verdant real estate anomalies abound in Cherokee County. With 20 such properties, Cherokee has the most inholdings of any county in North Carolina. Neighboring Clay has eight.

The red pin denotes the location of the Fires Creek Picnic Area in the Nantahala National Forest in Clay County, North Carolina. The inholding is located north of the picnic area, on the ridge of one of the mountain slopes shown in the inset map. (Google Maps)

Inholdings create special challenges for conservationists, because private owners of inholdings may undertake activities that affect surrounding National Forest lands and waterways.

As of 2013, the North Carolina Department of Environment Resources designated Fires Creek and 30 other “Outstanding Resource Waters” in the Hiwassee River watershed. Who can say with a certainty no others drain Nantahala National Forest inholdings? I speak my piece: Clarifying this is a project that Mainstream and the myriad other groups I name below could cooperate in getting done during 2018.

Rim of the Valley River Mountains

North Carolina general warranty deed 3017002467 was filed by attorney Merinda Woody of Hayesville in the blue marble Cherokee County courthouse here in Murphy November 14. It represented a major step in protection of the beauty and water quality of the Appalachian Mountains.

That privately held land was deeded over to Mainspring Conservation Trust by a limited liability corporation that goes only by the capital letters TOBBLL LLC. The corporation is managed by Chris Logan and has its primary address in Marble, North Carolina, a Cherokee County community about five miles northeast as the crow flies from the inholding.

Also part of the transaction were two other adjacent inholdings owned locally by Michael and Ashley Anderson of Hayesville and by Wayne and Judith Holland of Brasstown.

A distant view of the mountains that contain the newly purchased inholding. (Mainspring Conservation Trust Facebook page)

This sale got a six-column page one headline in a Sunday edition last month of the Asheville Citizen-Times. The inholding’s location is significant. It is on Phillips Ridge at up to 3,900 feet above sea level comprising the rim of the Valley River Mountains that form the border of Cherokee and Clay counties, beloved by hikers.

Meandering from there at almost 4,000 feet are stunning streams draining fast down a steep eastern slope to Fires Creek Wildlife Management Area, which is a southeast U.S. family-fun favorite accessible from U.S. 64 between Murphy and Hayesville.

In a red state in a congressional district represented by a Tea Party leader at a time of avowed de-emphasis by the White House of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Fires Creek, which is a key tributary of the Hiwassee River, continues to enjoy a coveted state designation as “outstanding resource waters.” These are streams with exceptional water quality that receive special protections because of their “ecological or recreational significance.”

The Western North Carolina Environmental Drama

Multiple notable characters of the lively western North Carolina environmental political scene turn up in public records related to the inholding. Let’s have a look at them.

In 2015 a host of organizations blocked a U.S. Forest Service’s deeply conditioned and hedged approval, after years of discussion, for a would-be Laurel Creek Property Owners Association (the inholding owners’ working name for years) access road they’d build themselves at a cost of $18,000 a mile.

The groups are, in alphabetical order: Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition (sole compiler and painstaking gatherer of water-quality testing data at Hickory Cove and Laurel and Rockhouse Creeks above Fires Creek); Mountain High Hikers; Mountain True; N.C. Wildlife Federation; N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission; Southern Environmental Law Center; Trout Unlimited; The Wilderness Society; and Wild South.

TOBBLL LLC is in the business of timber tracts but never has spelled fully the acronym in its name in documents at the web site of the North Carolina Secretary of State. At present, annual reports only disclose that Chris Logan is manager and the firm’s address is Marble. Logan operates Valwood Corporation chip wood company. He served a term on the board of directors of the TVA-participating local power company called Blue Ridge Mountains Electric Membership Cooperative.

TOBBLL LLC is one of five North Carolina corporations for which Thomas Thrash of Asheville has been the registered agent or founder, according to the Secretary of State database in 2015. Thrash is a former U.S. Forest Service employee.

Michael Anderson is a seriously multi-tasking North Carolinian who, according to his agent listing by Century 21 Scenic Realty of nearby Young Harris, Georgia, was Clay County, North Carolian manager from 1998 to 2004. He is at present a licensed real estate broker; certified real estate appraiser; licensed general contractor; and even a North Carolina Courts magistrate judge for Clay County.

In the Laurel Creek Property Owners Association’s 2006 access application to the Forest Service, Michael Anderson stated the parties’ intent was primitive cabins. This year, he told Mainspring for its announcement: “All we wanted to do was hunt grouse.”

Mainspring executive director Taylor said:

“We are excited the water quality of Laurel Creek flowing into Fires Creek will be protected and the Rim Trail re-routed so people can once again be able to enjoy that beautiful hike… Mainspring can now own and manage the property until the Forest Service takes title.”

Tom Bennett of rural Cherokee County, North Carolina, is a retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer and editor, 1983 to 2006.

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