On a pleasant May morning, descendants of Ernest Willis gathered not far from the small town of Cashiers, North Carolina to explore a tract of land donated by their ancestor for its perpetual protection. Ernest donated the land through his estate to the Nature Conservancy of which he was a lifetime member. As descendants of Ernest, Donny (second cousin three-times removed) and his mom were invited to participate in this hike, hosted by the Conservancy. Non-Willis friends joined in the fun as well.
The Willis Tract, now known officially as the Silver Run Preserve, consists of over 1400 acres in Jackson and Transylvania Counties. It is the largest Conservancy-owned preserve in the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment, which stretches from Hickory Nut Gorge southeast of Asheville, North Carolina, extending westward to the Chattooga watershed in Georgia. Surrounded on three sides by the Nantahala National Forest, the preserve contains several of the streams that form the Whitewater River headwaters as well as part of the Sassafras Mountain range. It’s unique geological features, with lots of rainfall and varied habitats make it a unique home for a diversity of animals and plants, including a number of endangered and threatened species. The walk was guided by Nature Conservancy Stewardship Manager Adam Warwick and his associate Evan, who have a remarkable knowledge of the area and its plant and animal species. Several professors from local universities, botanists and birdwatchers provided additional insight. Our first stop was the pretty Silver Run Waterfall, where we stopped for a few photos. We then consolidated a group of hikers into four-wheel drive vehicles and head to the trail-head, stopping along the way at a mountain bog to talk about its importance as an ecosystem. In the Southeast of the US, these habitats are the most critically endangered ecosystem. In many areas, without beavers, and with no natural burning taking place, the bogs have become overrun with low, woody plants that block out light. An ongoing project will be clearing some of this undergrowth out, giving native plants (such as the rare, carnivorous pitcher plant) and animal species (like the tiny, endangered bog turtle) the chance to reestablish themselves. As more people become aware of the ecological importance of these wetlands, hopefully efforts to protect them will increase.
The Conservancy continues a biological inventory of Silver Run’s plants and animals, further revealing the importance of this unique area. Among the flowers blooming the day of our walk were Jack-in-the-pulpit, striped and pink trillium, native iris, lady’s slipper, straw lily and wood betony. We also observed and learned about an interesting species called Bear Corn. With no chlorophyll of its own, it depends on the roots of oak trees for its nourishment. It gets the name it’s often eaten by bears as they awaken from a long winter hibernation, and are looking for a way to get their digestive system running smoothly again. (Specifically, it helps to loosen up their fecal plug! Gross!) A dusky salamander and a red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) made appearances in wetter spots, while among oaks and pines there were a number of pretty pink azaleas and several dogwoods in bloom. The group stopped for lunch at the top of a hill, before descending to have a look at the plaque in memory of Ernest Willis’ parents, Horace H. Willis (1891-1970) and Alice M. Willis (1890-1982).
At the end of the excursion, the group dispersed, promising to revisit the Preserve at a future date. We were all excited to have been a part of the day, and proud to remember the man who ensured that this important area will forever be protected. When Silver Run Preserve was created, Katherine Skinner, Executive Director of the North Carolina Chapter of the Nature Conservancy commented that “This is an important tract of land in one of the most important biological regions in the Southeastern United States . . . Mr. Willis has left a great legacy to the citizens of North Carolina and the entire Southeast.”
The Willis family and friends are grateful to the folks at Nature Conservancy for providing the opportunity to explore this amazing place. Silver Run Preserve itself is accessible only through the North Carolina Chapter’s field trip program. Please contact the Mountains office for information: (828) 350-1431. The surrounding Nantahala National Forest offers over 600 miles of trails for hikers, mountain bikers and horse-back riders. Whitewater rafting, camping and fishing are other popular activities.