The Story of Hoot Owl

Tucked away in the hills and hollows of Horseshoe, NC lies a new addition to Pisgah National Forest, beautiful wooded land with an intricate history that involves, scandal, justice, and the dogged pursuit of conservation.  This 200-acre piece of land, known for years as the Hoot Owl Tract, marries a 1500-acre disjointed piece of Pisgah to the larger 100,000-acre core, and serves as a crown jewel of conservation land in the local area.

Long before the tract was ever being considered for conservation it was owned by a couple of tomato farmers from Candler.  And here’s where the scandal comes in – they bought the land using funds obtained by defrauding the USDA Crop Insurance program, saying that hail had damaged millions of dollars’ worth of their tomato crops over multiple years, when in reality they had spread bags of ice and mothballs on their fields and sent in pictures as ‘proof’.  After being busted, the couple faced months of jail time and were dealt serious fines totaling more than $15 million dollars – justice served.  So they worked out a deal to donate their ill-gotten Hoot Owl Tract to the US Forest Service via the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC), but it just wasn’t that easy.  CMLC worked hard to raise funds to pay off multiple liens and back taxes on the property, and with assistance from the Duke Energy Water Resources Fund, NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund, and private conservation donors, the debts were paid and the land was freed.

Equinox came into play during the process of the land transfer from CMLC to the USFS – Owen Carson, our plant ecologist and environmental specialist, walked the tract while performing a Phase I environmental site assessment to determine if the land was clean and free of environmental hazards.  In doing so, he discovered amidst an otherwise common oak-hickory forest what would become yet another jewel in the Hoot Owl crown of conservation: nearly 2.5 acres of rare Swamp Forest-Bog complex, a wetland ecosystem that currently supports incredible floral and faunal diversity and also has the potential to house numerous rare, threatened, and endangered species!  These lush, sphagnum-filled areas occupy the densely-forested bottomlands of the tract and are fed by an abundance of springs and seeps; the wetlands drain into Sitton Creek, the entire headwaters of which are contained on the Hoot Owl tract; Sitton Creek flows only a short distance downstream and into the North Mills River, a gorgeous trout stream that also supports rare hellbender salamanders and endangered Appalachian elktoe mussels.

The history of the Hoot Owl Tract is as winding as a forest road.  Born out of fraud, obtained through justice, and conserved via the efforts of an amazing team of public, private, and non-profit players, the land and its legacy will forever be a part of our National Forests and will remain in our minds as one of so many projects that we are grateful to have been a part.

See more about this tract of land in the news:

WLOS,   Blue Ridge Now,    Asheville Citizen Times

Equinox provides a full range of solutions for planning, design and ecosystem management services. Find out more >>