Panthertown Valley

Recreation and conservation officials are nearing their almost $200,000 fundraising goal to purchase property next to Panthertown Valley.

They need one last push.

The Friends of Panthertown, a volunteer group dedicated to maintaining 30 miles of trails and protecting more than 10,000 acres of land within the Nantahala National Forest, partnered for the project with Franklin-based Mainspring Conservation Trust.

The two groups set their sights on a 16-acre tract next to the valley’s Salt Rock entrance. Acquiring the land, Friends of Panthertown Board President Margaret Carton said, will provide better access to trails and camping sites, improve the entrance’s parking, and protect views of the valley’s perimeter.

A gravel area used for parking now gets overcrowded, forcing cars into the road, Carton said.

Officials hope to raise $195,000 by Friday, March 31. An anonymous donor will match all private donations up to $100,000.

So far, they’ve received about 100 donations totaling more than $50,000. Including the donor-matched money, the amount raised is $109,000.

This leaves about $50,000 needed, either donated or matched, Carton told the Jackson County Board of Commissioners during a March 14 work session. Carton and Sharon Taylor, director of Mainspring Conservation Trust, updated county leaders on their progress and asked for local government’s help.

The property’s closing date is Friday, April 21. Commissioners plan to make a decision at their Monday, April 3, board meeting. Carton said she would check whether the anonymous donor would match taxpayer dollars.

“We’ve looked for ways as a county to provide opportunities for our citizens to recreate,” Chairman Brian McMahan said. “This is another opportunity for us to contribute and give residents access to a crown jewel here in our county, to go hiking, camping and do all the great things that people like to do outdoors.”

Others agreed that protecting Panthertown Valley is worth the investment.

“I think it’s one of the most beautiful places in this county, and it’s probably one of the most beautiful places in the mountains. It almost reminds me of being in the West, some of it,” Commissioner Boyce Deitz said. “It’s one of the best-kept secrets among the citizens of this county. The more we can get our own people in there, the better.”

Panthertown Valley, located in southern Jackson County, is dubbed “the Yosemite of the East” by local botanist Dan Pittillo, a retired Western Carolina University professor.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates about 25,000 people visit the valley each year.

According to a Friends of Panthertown survey conducted last year, 25 percent of visitors are from Jackson County, 25 percent are from other parts of North Carolina and 50 percent are from outside the state.

“We’re pulling people in from all over,” Carton said.

If they’re successful, conservation officials plan to transfer the 16-acre property to the U.S. Forest Service, to expand Panthertown Valley’s protected borders.