Preserving Grandfather Mountain

Hometown Heroes, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on September 10, 2000

Visit Grandfather Mountain But dont try to change iteven if youre the federal government.

People in Linville, N.C., cant decide what to call Hugh Morton: environmentalist, educator, or employer. All three, concludes Harvey Ritch, the owner of a small shop near the communitys only stoplight. Around here we just call him The Man Who Owns the Mountain.

The mountain is Grandfather Mountain, a mile-high peak with craggy outcroppings forming the profile of an old man. Its the highest peak in the Blue Ridge, is considered the most biologically diverse mountain in eastern North America, and has been in Hugh Mortons family since 1885, when his mothers father purchased it. In 1952 the property was divided among family members.

My relatives wanted the flat land, which was easier to develop into resorts, he says. But I loved the mountain.

Two people were responsible for teaching Morton to love and respect nature: his mother, who helped him learn the names of plants and animals, and a camp counselor who showed him how to use a camera.

Today Morton, who lives at the base of the mountain, is a superb nature photographer whose pictures are on postcards and in books. One photo of the mountaina view of the Linn Cove Viaductis on the cover of this years Rand McNally Millennium Atlas.

The viaduct may be Mortons most enduring legacy. Soon after he inherited his land, the National Park Service announced plans for the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 470-mile scenic road stretching from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The route would require deep cuts into the eastern slope of Grandfather Mountain.

That would have been like taking a switch-blade to the Mona Lisa, he says. I told them they had to find another way.

The battle took 12 years. Under Mortons prodding, the Park Service imported technology from Europenever before used in the United Stateswhich resulted in a quarter-mile bridge that cantilevers out from the mountain, supported by piers. It has won 12 design awards.

Morton is modest about this and numerous other accomplishments. He led a group that successfully lobbied for a law to protect North Carolina mountain peaks from environmentally damaging development and served as executive director of a one-hour PBS television program on air pollution, narrated by Walter Cronkite.

In 1991 Morton ceded 1,766 acres of the mountain to The Nature Conservancy and the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. This land, known as the backcountry, is a permanent, protected habitat for endangered animals, such as the northern flying squirrel and the peregrine falcon. Other wildlife includes black bears, river otters, panthers, and deer.

A year later, Grandfather Mountain, whose 3,500 acres contain an unusually large variety of plants and animals, became an International Biosphere Reserve, designated by the United Nations as a place for scientific research.

But Morton wants everyone to understand the importance of preserving the environment. With the help of experts from the Smithsonian Institution, he built a small museum to teach the mountains visitors about flora and fauna. He also constructed an animal habitat, where folks stand behind rock walls to see black bears and other native animals.

Because of his work in conservation and education, Morton received the states highest honor, the North Carolina Award for Public Service in 1983. In 1997 he was honored with the Outstanding Conservationist Award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the North Carolinian of the Year Award from the state press association.

Im just having a good time. Ive never aspired to any awards, he says. My biggest reward comes when I see a group of school children sit around Mildreds feet.

He gestures to a life-size model of Mildred, one of two black bears he bought from the Atlanta Zoo in 1968. He intended to free the animals so they would reproduce and repopulate the mountain, but Mildred wouldnt adapt to the wild. Instead she became the mountain mascot, entertaining and educating visitors right up to her death in 1993 at the old-bear age of 26.

About 250,000 people visit Grandfather Mountain each year, and Morton strives to balance convenience and conservation. Hes made it visitor-friendly with paved roads, restrooms, a restaurant, well-marked trails, and a swinging bridge spanning a mile-high chasm. But hes also preserved its essence: a refuge where people can enjoy the natural beauty of North Carolina, the state he loves.