The Upstate's Happiness Factor: The Naturaland Trust

Many Upstate residents have never heard of the Blue Ridge Escarpment even though it traverses the northern sections of Oconee, Pickens, and Greenville Counties. In these areas, the terrain sharply rises—as much as 2,000 feet in only one or two miles—from the Piedmont Plateau to the North Carolina mountains.

It is because the altitude changes so dramatically over such a short distance that this area is home to hundreds of rare species, over 50 waterfalls, and some of South Carolina’s most breathtaking vistas.

Take for example the Jocassee Gorges area, which is a large tract of rocky ridges, forested land, swift mountain streams, waterfalls, and rare plant habitats. Due to sharply changing altitudes, incoming moist air turns into rain—as much as 100 inches per year. This temperate rainforest climate is unique in the Eastern United States and makes this area a refuge for ferns, mosses, and other moisture-loving species.

In an effort to protect the special places in the mountains for future generations, Greenville attorney and avid nature lover Tommy Wyche started the Naturaland Trust in 1973. In the intervening 41 years the Trust has diligently worked with area businesses, private land owners, and government entities to protect the Blue Ridge Escarpment.

According to Executive Director Mac Stone, what makes the Naturaland Trust unique is that it works behind the scenes. “We’re a small organization. It’s just me and very dedicated board members who know the habitat, know the land owners, and are able to talk with the local community to find out what properties are most at risk.”

According to Stone, there are several reasons a tract of land might be at risk. “Some of these areas have no zoning and have no regulations surrounding their protection. So we try to purchase these properties and then turn them over to the public so they can enjoy them,” said Stone.

Stone went on to say that some tracts of the in the escarpment needed to be protected from development: “We’re not opposed to business and we’re not opposed to people having homes. But there are certain areas that are so ecologically unique and can form part of these wildlife corridors which we also enjoy for hunting or hiking or recreation that should be protected.”

While there is still work to be done, Stone explained that the Naturaland Trust has already has achieved several of its goals. “We own about 3,300 acres, but we’ve helped protect well over 100,000 acres. Tommy Wyche helped out with the purchase of Caesar’s Head, Jones Gap State Park, and the Jocassee Gorges wilderness area. These are all these properties we’ve helped protect. First we raise funds to purchase land and then we donate the land back to the state or we’ve participated in the protection of these areas,” he says.

The map of the Blue Ridge escarpment of South Carolina, to the right, shows protected lands in green and the remaining unprotected tracts in tan.

Stone also noted that wilderness protection goes hand in hand with improving the Upstate’s economic situation. “Providing these green spaces has literally transformed our area into what it is today. Being able to have a balance between business and green spaces is critical for maintaining this area’s sense of wellness. It’s like an intangible of the happiness factor. To be able to know that you can go to downtown Greenville and walk around and in 20 minutes you can be in complete wilderness is the balance we’re trying to maintain here. That’s what makes our area very unique. So is conservation good for business? You bet it is because this is what brings people to our area.”

Nature photo credit: Mac Stone

Article by Josephine McMullen