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NC – Mount Mitchell: State’s first park growing, poised for future

MOUNT MITCHELL – Jake Blood likes nothing more than a hard, calf-burning climb up a high mountain peak, the more patches of wild blackberries and need for bushwhacking, the better.

That’s why he finds such satisfaction in a hike amid the Black Mountains, which buttress Mount Mitchell and its sky-scraping elevation of 6,684 feet, the highest east of the Mississippi.

But the retired Air Force intelligence officer, and founding member of the High Peaks Trail Association in Burnsville, was always bothered by something as he pored over topographic maps of Pisgah National Forest, which surrounds Mount Mitchell.

“I always wondered, what is that?” Blood said, pointing to a spit of land colored in white denoting private property, jutting in between the boundaries of the state park in Yancey County. “It always baffled me. What was it doing there?”

He was leading a hiking group last week across the Black Mountain Crest Trail, which scales the spine of the Blacks’ most prominent peaks in Yancey County – Mount Craig (6,645 feet), Big Tom Wilson (6,552 feet), Balsam Cone (6,611 feet), and Cattail Peak (6,583 feet), until now, the highest elevation, privately owned peak in the Eastern United States.

Thanks to recent events, the maps will change, with the white piece of the jigsaw puzzle soon to be colored purple – indicating state-owned land for public enjoyment.

The Conservation Fund, a Raleigh-based land trust, has purchased 2,744 acres in the Black Mountains – 783 acres in the Laurel Branch Area and 1,961 acres in the Cattail Peak area, including Cattail Peak – adjoining the state park. The fund will convey the land to the state this year, timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the N.C. State Park System and Mount Mitchell, the state’s first park.

The park expansion and centennial will be marked by a party Saturday and Sunday at Mount Mitchell. The land acquisition will more than double the size of Mount Mitchell State Park, which was 1,996 acres.

Funding is complete for the Laurel Branch area, valued at $3 million, said Bill Holman, N.C. director of the Conservation Fund. Gifts from philanthropists Fred and Alice Stanback covered most of the costs, with $130,000 coming from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

The Stanbacks, of Salisbury, provided half the funding for the Cattail Peak to Cane River properties, Holman said. Those carry a value of $7.25 million. The Clean Water fund provided $1.2 million last year and earlier this year, the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund set aside $728,000.

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