The highest point in South Carolina is going to get a little higher.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources announced this morning an improvement project for Sassafras Mountain that will include a 40-60 foot observation tower atop the 3,553-foot mountain in northern Pickens County.
“It's truly an exciting day for not only the Department of Natural Resources but also many of our partners and certainly the citizens of South Carolina,” said Emily Cope, Deputy Director of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division.
Sassafras Mountain, which sits on the border of South Carolina and North Carolina, has for years been a neglected landmark in northern Pickens County. Since the 77-mile Foothills Trail passes over Sassafras on its way between Table Rock and Oconee state parks, about the only regular visitors to the landmark were hikers and backpackers.
However, when DNR erected a viewing platform on the western side of the parking lot in 2010, interest and visitation increased significantly and the idea of a more extensive observation platform on top of the mountain began to take hold.
Partners in the Sassafras Mountain effort include the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Pickens County, Clemson University, The Conservation Fund, The Highpointers Club, Duke Energy, the Foothills Trail Conference, and the Harry Hampton Memorial Wildlife Fund.
Daniel Harding, an associate professor of architecture at Clemson University with extensive experience in designing structures in natural areas, has completed a conceptual plan for Sassafras Mountain.
A rainy Monday morning couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of those announcing the improvements to Sassafras.
Sen. Lindsey Graham addressed a large crowd that gathered atop Sassafras for the announcement.
“This is a beautiful spot on a rainy day,” Graham said. “When the weather's clear, it's absolutely stunning.”
Graham said today was a celebration of a “partnership between the government and the private sector that doesn't get nearly enough attention.”
“This part of South Carolina is going to be preserved for the rest of our lives and as far as the eye can see,” Graham said. “I've never bought into the idea that economic growth and good environmental policies have to be in confrontation with each other. I think they go hand in hand. Our generation of political leaders and just average everyday citizens, I think we have a moral responsibility, quite frankly, to take the beauty of South Carolina and make sure it's preserved for generations to come.”
To accomplish that, you have to have people willing to put “their money where their mouth is.”
“The conservation organizations and the sporting groups in South Carolina have literally put their money into endeavors that will sustain our state's beauty long after we're all gone,” Graham said.
The federal government has a role in that effort, he said.
It's important the government keep the Land Water Conservation Fund adequately funded “so we can make purchases like this,” Graham said.
“In these days of reduced budgets and hard times and high unemployment, it is so easy to forget our responsibility to be good stewards of God's environment, and I am not going to let that happen,” Graham said. “The harder the times, the more difficult the circumstances, the more leadership is required. As we try to get our fiscal house in order in Washington … we're not going to disengage from the idea that conservation has a place in modern America. High unemployment is no excuse to disengage from programs that have served us well from generation to generation.”
During the ceremony, R. Mike Leonard, Vice-Chairman of the Conservation Fund, announced that donate 4.8 acres at the top of Sassafras, on the North Carolina side, to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to assist in the improvements project.
“It's something that South Carolina has wanted to do for years,” Leonard said, of the observation tower project.”
“The Conservation Fund has a long history of doing work in this part of the state,” Leonard said, adding the fund was involved in the purchase of 35,000 – 40,000 acres that stretches from Sassafras to Lake Jocasee. That purchase was enabled by a partnership between the fund, the Mellon Foundation, the state of South Carolina and Duke Energy.
“It made this huge area …. possible,” Leonard said.
The Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund is funded by off-shore oil leases, not taxpayer dollars, to help enable purchases of “important lands all over the country.”
“The presence of that kind of federal money will again and again and again leverage private money to work in partnership with the federal government, the same way state money will leverage private dollars,” Leonard said. “It's important that we don't forget that. Nobody does all of this alone. It's all a matter of partnerships and working together for the public good – and believe me, all of this up here, the tower and all we're doing will be of immense good for generations to come.”
Cope said DNR was “truly, truly grateful to the Conservation Fund for its donation of the property.”
Pickens County government was another active partner in the project and in the conservation of Sassafras over the years.
Pickens County was responsible for paving the roads that lead to the state's highest point.
“What we want to do is make it more accessible, so that everyone can come, of all ages, all abilities, so that everyone can enjoy this huge treasure that we have here in Pickens County,” said Pickens County Council Chairman Jennifer Willis.
All the partners brought something to the table, she stated.
“From paving the roads and improving access to getting the additional land we needed from the architectural design program at Clemson coming up with this design which will allow us even better visuals and unobstructed 360 degree views without impacting the land, without damaging the resource we have here and preserving it,” Willis said. “It really is amazing.”
Cope said when DNR went to Clemson University, “there was absolutely no hesitation about being involved in the project.”
“They shared that passion for creating something unique at Sassafras Mountain,” Cope said.
Kate Schwennsen, Chair of Clemson’s School of Architecture, said the project was a great opportunity for students and faculty alike.
“It’s a role model project,” Schwennsen said. “It shows how it should work when we all work together.”
While the university is not donating funds or land, it’s bringing “vision, creativity, boundless energy and sweat equity,” she said.
“We’re not afraid to roll up our sleeves and get some hard work done,” Schwennsen said.
The school aims to teach its students “how to deal with real issues of the 21st century,” like conservation and stewardship and how to work with different groups of people, she said.
“They’re engaged in this project,” Schwennsen said. “They’re passionate about it.”
Harding summed up the project with a quote that guides him in his work.
“’We do not inherit this place from our ancestors,’” Harding quoted. “’We’re borrowing it from our children.’”
The improvement project will include other amenities such as new trails, including a barrier-free section, and other public-use facilities such as restrooms.
The partners are now beginning the funding phase of the project.
To donate to this project, contact Tom Swayngham, DNR regional wildlife coordinator, at (864) 654-1671, Extension 21 or at SwaynghamT@dnr.sc.gov.
All donations are tax deductible.