Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney will donate 7,500 acres of mountainous land in northwestern North Carolina to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, keeping rare plant and animal habitat and prized natural features from development.
The donation is the largest in the conservancy’s 47-year history and one of the biggest ever made to a land trust in the state.
Sweeney, famously private, has purchased tens of thousands of acres of land for conservation in North Carolina since real estate development stalled during the recession of 2008-2009.
The gift announced Thursday involves land in the Roan Highlands. It includes dozens of contiguous tracts on the Avery-Mitchell County border that rise to 5,300 feet in elevation, according to an announcement by Jay Leutze, senior board adviser to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.
Leutze said the property, which will be transferred to the conservancy over the next year, supports threatened and endangered plant and animal species and features some of the most extraordinary scenery in the eastern U.S. It includes the largest American chestnut restoration project in the country along with old-growth forests, a half dozen waterfalls, a system of rare heath-balds and boulder fields.
The conservancy will own and manage the land as a nature preserve, Leutze said, and staff will continue to use the land for scientific study in collaboration with Sweeney. Once ownership transfers, the conservancy plans to host guided hikes on the property for church groups, students, scouts and others.
“This is spectacular conservation land,” Leutze said, that joins land already protected by the state and the conservancy. “This is a conservation home run.”
Sweeney began acquiring the property in 2012 with a plan to conserve a whole mountain ecosystem.
It lies toward the southern planning boundary of the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area, a special conservation area designated by the state General Assembly in 2008 to protect a grassy bald in the Roan Highlands range. It’s near the Pisgah National Forest.
Carl Silverstein, executive director of the conservancy, said the acquisition is a rare opportunity.
“As we watch so much of our region get carved into subdivisions, strategic acquisition of large parcels of land is increasingly important — and increasingly hard to accomplish,” he said in a press release about the deal. “In 20 years this gift might be one of the few sites in Western North Carolina that still looks like it looked one hundred years ago, or one thousand years ago.
“These parcels include some of the most sought-after conservation acres in the eastern United States, including over 100 miles of pristine creeks and streams. We really are honored to be entrusted with the responsibility to steward this vast mountain complex.”
Pat Dale, who lives in Avery County, has worked since 2012 to negotiate Sweeney’s purchase of the more than 40 individual properties that will make up the donation announced Thursday. He said Sweeney has prioritized the land he wants to purchase for conservation in part by studying the state’s inventory of rare and endangered species.
“He looked at places that scored exceptionally high,” Dale said, and land within the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area designation counts more than 30 rare and endangered species. Streams crossing the land feed the area’s watershed, and Dale said Sweeney wanted to help protect those by preventing development.
The land being donated includes a mountaintop and the slopes leading to it.
“You can stand up there and see half the world,” Dale said. “It’s fantastic. It really is.”
Dale said Sweeney has taken thousands of photos of the property.
Sweeney has said his activism as a land conservationist grew out of his family’s experience of having to sell timber rights to his grandmother’s farm in southwestern Virginia to cover her medical costs. Eventually they sold the farm itself.
“Land conservation is the one unquestionably practical and cost-effective thing we can do to protect ecology and the future habitability of the planet,” Sweeney told the University of Maryland about his conservation work.
In 2016, Sweeney donated a 7,000-acre conservation easement in the Box Creek Wilderness in Rutherford and McDowell counties to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, permanently protecting it from development. That property includes Southern Appalachian Mountain bogs, which Fish & Wildlife officials say is an increasingly imperiled habitat type.. The Box Creek property is home to the South Mountain gray-cheeked salamander, an at-risk species, as well as bog turtles and an endangered flower called the white irisette.
The land contribution is Sweeney’s second large conservation-focused donation of the week. Also on Thursday, Audubon North Carolina and the Coastal Land Trust announced that Sweeney was paying for the purchase and conservation of Hutaff Island, a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina.