The Mountain Retreat Association has agreed to sell development and timber rights on more than 2,400 acres of wilderness surrounding the conference center for half their value. The state Clean Water Management Trust Fund provided $3.9 million to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to buy the land.
"As real estate costs have soared and as we have watched houses go up on mountains . we have really wondered how much longer these mountains could endure," said Jane Holt, who serves on the association's wilderness committee.
Surrounded by U.S. Forest Service property, the Asheville watershed, Mount Mitchell State Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, the land joins more than 125,000 acres in the area already protected in some way.
"It is prominent in the view seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway and from Interstate 40," said Carl Silverstein, conservancy executive director.
The property is home to some popular trails and rare plants. The easement will protect Flat Creek, part of the headwaters of the Swannanoa River, according to Bill Holman, executive director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
"Keeping it (the streams) clean is a lot cheaper than trying to clean it up later," Holman said.
Friday's celebration came even as the Clean Water Management Trust Fund braces for possible budget cuts. State lawmakers are debating taking $15 million from the trust fund and putting that money into underground storage tank insurance programs.
The $15 million is about one quarter of the trust fund budget, Holman said.