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** Archived Article - please check for current information. **

September 17, 2012

Sassafras Mountain improvement project begins atop roof of South Carolina

A unique partnership of public and private groups is helping to change the face of Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest point.

The Sassafras Mountain Improvement Project officially got underway Monday, Sept. 17 on top of the 3,553-foot mountain in northern Pickens County, highlighted by remarks from U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. Another highlight came when The Conservation Fund announced at the ceremony that it will donate 4.8 acres at the top of Sassafras, on the North Carolina side, to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

“One of the challenges of any generation is to preserve and protect the God-given beauty of our state,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. “Today we are taking an important step forward in preserving for future generations this wonderful area of South Carolina. Not only are we preserving the Sassafras Mountain area for the future, we are also making it more accessible. It is important we continue to push for thoughtful conservation, combined with economic growth, to ensure the natural beauty and wonders of our state are protected for decades to come.”

“We are pleased that South Carolina’s highest point will now and forever be accessible to the public and are honored to be a part of this effort,” said R. Michael Leonard, vice chairman of the Board of Directors for The Conservation Fund. “The Fund intends to convey the remainder of the adjacent property—the first phase of the 8,000-acre East Fork Headwaters property—to the North Carolina Forest Service later this year, preserving the awe-inspiring views surrounding Sassafras Mountain and creating additional recreational opportunities nearby.”

Eventually the project will include an observation tower to give visitors a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains of Georgia, North Carolina and even Tennessee. Other amenities will feature new trails, including a barrier-free section, and other public-use facilities such as restrooms.

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.

The partners will work to find private donors to help fund the project. All donations will be tax deductible and will help create a crown jewel on top of the highest point in South Carolina. To donate to this project, contact Tom Swayngham, DNR regional wildlife coordinator, at (864) 654-1671, Extension 21 or at SwaynghamT@dnr.sc.gov.

“We are truly grateful to The Conservation Fund for their generous donation to the citizens of South Carolina and to all of our partners who are working to develop Sassafras Mountain into a premier destination point for the state,” said Alvin Taylor, DNR director.

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.

Pickens County has made major contributions to the Sassafras project, including grading and repaving the road that leads to the top of the mountain, cleanup of the area around the mountain and funding. Pickens County has been an enthusiastic partner, recognizing the importance of Sassafras Mountain as a tourist destination.

“It is important that we celebrate the assets that make Pickens County unique,” said Jennifer Willis, Pickens County Council chairman. “Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina, is a treasure here in our backyard. The completion of the lookout will enhance the site and improve the views and accessibility of this treasure for residents and visitors.”

The Highpointers Club, a group that promotes the highest points in all 50 states, has lobbied for years for improvements atop Sassafras Mountain.

“We at the Highpointers Club are excited about the plans on Sassafras Mountain that will promote and preserve the beauty of South Carolina’s tallest mountain,” said Sid Collins, CEO of the Pickens County YMCA and Highpointers Club member. “This project will create better access while maintaining the integrity and wonder of Sassafras. The Highpointers Club supports this effort and will help in any way possible.”

In December 2004, DNR purchased the South Carolina portion of Sassafras Mountain from Duke Energy. Duke retained rights to important communications facilities located on the summit. The state line between South Carolina and North Carolina runs precisely along the ridge top of Sassafras, bisecting the top of the mountain. The North Carolina portion of the mountain was recently acquired by a coalition of conservation interests in the Tar Heel state, led by The Conservation Fund and the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.

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