Nestled among the craggy peaks and rolling valleys of the Alleghany Highlands of western Virginia, Bath County has long retained its rural and rustic character, even as other Appalachian mountain communities fall victim to the pressures of increasing development and population explosions.
Though it has been home to the famed Homestead resort for more than two centuries, the county’s isolation along with its abundant National Forest acreage have kept its mountain slopes pristine.
That is one reason why The Nature Conservancy, in its largest land purchase ever in Virginia, bought 9,000 acres of private mountain forest land in Bath County last March. Much of the land encompasses the wind-battered slopes of Warm Springs Mountain.
“There are only a few community types like this on the planet,” explains TNC Director of Communications Daniel White, who works out of the organization’s Charlottesville office. White is referring to the mountain’s rare montane pine barren ecological community, which consists of a fire-dependent landscape of pitch pine, scrub oak, Catawba rhododendron, and mountain laurel.
“These communities are rare on a global basis,” says White, noting that there are less than 20 occurrences of this type of ecological community on earth, and most occur in far colder climates than that found in the southern Appalachian community of Bath.
TNC purchased the Warm Springs Mountain tract along with 982 acres on nearby Coles Mountain and land on either side of the Cascades Gorge, which is owned by The Homestead, for approximately $6.3 million. The Warm Springs Mountain tract shares a 13-mile border with the George Washington National Forest, which itself owns more than half of Bath County.
While TNC owns some 275,000 acres of land in Virginia, TNC Director of Protection Linda Crowe says it’s unusual for the group to have the opportunity to purchase land in such a large chunk as the Warm Springs Mountain tract. It’s even more unusual, she says, to find such a large expanse of undeveloped land in the hands of a single private owner.
Apart from the montane pine barren that dominates the upper slopes of Warm Springs Mountain, the mountain is also home to several unusual high elevation wetlands and a variety of wildlife species, including black bears, white-tailed deer, bobcats, wild turkey, timber rattlers, grouse, and red-spotted newts. A handful of locals even claim the mountain has been and may still be home to the elusive eastern cougar.
Crowe says that despite the mountain forest’s rich diversity of plant and animal life, “It is not what you would call pristine. It has been logged a few times.” Much of that logging came to a stop in the 1920s when Fay Ingalls, former president of The Homestead and the landholding company Virginia Hot Springs, purchased the mountain to save it from encroaching development. Warm Springs Mountain remained a protected landscape through the remainder of the 20th century, even after The Homestead was sold in 1993.
TNC plans to continue that conservation, including protection of some remnant Civilian Conservation Corps camps on the mountain as well as The Homestead’s famed skyline drive, which offers views on a clear day across several mountain ridges both east and west.
Today Virginia Hot Springs has become part of the development company known as Celebration Associates, founders and creators of “Celebrations Florida,” an upscale town the firm put together in partnership with Disney near Orlando, Florida. As part of that project, Disney purchased about 8,000 acres of Florida wetlands, which they donated to TNC. Celebration Associates developer Charles Adams says the firm’s positive experience with TNC in the Disney development encouraged them to partner with the environmental group again in Bath County.
When the original Virginia Hot Springs company sold TNC the 9,000-acre Warm Springs Mountain tract, they also sold the outstanding shares of the company, which included 3,000 acres of Warm Springs Mountain and the valley below to Celebration Associates. Celebration Associates, now working in Bath County under the Virginia Hot Springs name, will use the land for development of farm estates, vacation homes, and other types of upscale single-family dwellings.
Headed up by Adams, Virginia Hot Springs maintains that the development in the Warm Springs Valley and up the mountain slopes will be sensitively approached so as to maintain the unique rural character of Bath County. “The most environmentally sensitive land on the mountaintops went to TNC,” Adams notes. “We got some beautiful land, too, but it’s not as environmentally fragile.” The company expects to break ground in 2004. Adams says he expects land development to take up to a decade.
Trees cannot be cut down on Virginia Hot Springs or TNC land except for the construction of homes or other buildings. Public access to the TNC land is restricted right now, pending trails.