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Naturaland Trust secures 660 acres along Scenic Highway 11 corridor

Gilstrap Mountain.
Mac Stone
/
Greenville Journal
Gilstrap Mountain.

After 12 years of effort, Naturaland Trust has secured several key properties for protection along Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway in northern Pickens County.

The handful of properties totaling about 660 acres are significant because they form a contiguous link between two already protected areas – Nine Times Forest and Jocassee Gorges Wilderness Area – according to Mac Stone, executive director of Naturaland Trust.

Stone said the protection of the properties is part of a larger effort by the trust and other conservation partners to preserve land along S.C. Highway 11 — one of four highways in the state designated as scenic byways. Highway 11 has for decades been described as one of the most beautiful drives in the state as it traverses the mountainous northwestern corner of the Upstate through Cherokee, Spartanburg, Greenville, Pickens and Oconee counties.

But the federal scenic designation for this iconic Upstate road comes with no specific protections, Stone said.

“The only way to protect it is by proactive conservation purchases, like what we’re doing,” he said.

As a consequence of that natural beauty and in conjunction with a tremendous influx of new residents to the region, development pressures along the scenic route have intensified.

Stone said it has forced conservation groups like Naturaland Trust into something of a “cat and mouse” game with developers, with both groups trying to secure land along the Highway 11 corridor.

Stone said the latest series of property protections are important because they provide a crucial connection for wildlife between two protected habitats — Naturaland Trust’s Nine Times Forest and Jocassee Gorges Wilderness Area, which is managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).

Stone said protecting the new parcels would not have been possible without willing property owners and important funding partners like the South Carolina Conservation Bank (SCCB) and Duke Energy’s Keowee-Toxaway Habitat Enhancement Program (KTHEP).

The following properties straddling Highway 11 have been secured:

  • White Branch – 159 Acres, formerly owned by Billy and Maydel Keasler. Funding partners include SCCB and SCDNR, which will take ownership of part of the property.
  • Little Eastatoee – 234 Acres, formerly owned by Charles and the late Doug Winchester. This parcel and White Branch provide the physical connection of protected land for the first time between Nine Times Forest to Jocassee Gorges Wilderness Area. Funding Partners include SCCB, KTHEP and SCDNR, which will take ownership of part of the property. 
  • Gilstrap Mountain – 166 acres, formerly owned by the Gilstrap family. Funding partners include SCCB, KTHEP, Upstate Land Conservation Fund, SEW Eurodrive and Trey and Jenny Cole. 

The trust is also working to finalize acquisition of Eastatoee Ridge, a 106-acre parcel overlooking the newly protected areas with access to the Eastatoee River, a popular trout-fishing destination.
Stone said with this final acquisition, the trust and its partners will have protected a contiguous four-mile stretch of the Highway 11 corridor.

Key funding/conservation partners for the 660-acre acquisition:

  • South Carolina Conservation Bank
  • Duke Energy’s Keowee-Toxaway Habitat Enhancement Program
  • S.C. Department of Natural Resources
  • Upstate Land Conservation Fund

This story was filed as part of an editorial partnership between South Carolina Public Radio and the Greenville Journal, which is responsible for its content. You can learn more about the Greenville Journal here.

Jay King is a senior staff writer at Community Journals.