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North Carolina Mountain Is Appalachian Trail ‘Hot Spot’

September 29, 1986

SPRUCE PINE, N.C. (AP) _ A scenic mountaintop on the North Carolina-Tennessee border has become the hottest spot along the Appalachian Trail, even if the weather is getting cooler with the advent of the fall hiking season.

The heat, instead, is being generated by human emotions.

Appalachian Trail hikers long have treasured the view from Grassy Ridge Bald atop Roan Mountain. From its peak one can see a seemingly endless panorama of majestic mountain ridges that roll off into the distance like giant, frozen waves.

A large portion of Roan Mountain, including Grassy Ridge Bald, belongs to the heirs of the late C. Rex Peake.

″The Peakes’ land is adjacent to the Appalachian Trail and offers a spectacular view,″ Charles Miller, a U.S. Forest Service ranger said in a recent interview. ″Over the years hikers have beaten a path to the top of the ridge, in order to take in this view.″

Two of these hikers ran afoul of Spruce Pine dentist Dean Peake last June, while he and his family were picnicking up on the mountain. His wife, Susan, admits losing her temper.

″We had put up ‘No Trespassing’ signs and these two hikers, a long-haired young man and woman, just ignored them,″ she recalled. ″They said they had been coming up there for years and they had the nerve to demand that we prove to them that we owned the property.″

She motioned to a .38-caliber revolver lying on her husband’s desk.

″When they got smart with us, Dean showed them his pistol and told them they had better leave. I grabbed the man by the arm when he started walking the wrong way and, yes, I did start hitting them with rocks after he said something ugly to our 14-year-old daughter.″

Two weeks later, when members of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy came hiking through the area, the Peakes met them with a pair of deputy sheriffs and a shotgun-toting relative.

″After all, it is our land and we have let people use it for years,″ Mrs. Peake said. The conservancy responded with a complaint to U.S. Sen. Albert Gore Jr., D-Tenn., who in turn called for the government to step in and take the land.

″I am convinced that there is a pressing need for action to preserve the safety of the general public and the environmental integrity of this scenic portion of the Appalachian Trail,″ Gore wrote in a letter to Forest Service Chief Max Peterson.

″That land has been in my family since 1856,″ replied Peake, one of five family members who jointly own the property. ″The family would like to hold on to it but I don’t know how much longer we can last.″

The main threat to their holding, as far as the Peakes are concerned, comes not from hikers but from the federal government.

The Forest Service filed a condemnation action in April, aiming to incorporate Grassy Ridge Bald into the narrow corridor which contains the Appalachian Trail. The mountainous hiking path, which opened to the public in 1937, winds 2,092 miles from north Georgia to Maine, all but 240 miles on publicly owned land.

″The Peakes have been good stewards of the land for many years but now things have gotten out of hand,″ said Forest Service Associate Director Dave Startzell, noting that the condemnation action followed word that the Peakes had cut a road into the side of the mountain.

Grassy Ridge Bald is the only trouble spot along the trail, Startzell said, now that a segment in New York State running adjacent to a former radioactive dump site has been declared safe and opened to hikers.

The Forest Service has been trying to purchase the Peake property since 1969 and currently is offering the family $2,100 an acre.

Speaking of the condemnation action in Asheville federal court, Peake said, ″We want a jury to determine the amount the government should pay.″

The Peakes won’t reveal how much they think the land is worth but they note that developed property in the area sells for $8,000 to $80,000 or more an acre.

″This a fantastic piece of property. The mountaintop is 6,189 feet above sea level. Why, you can stand on our land and see more than a half dozen states,″ said Susan Peake. ″You can look down on property that is selling for thousands of dollars just for a single lot and here they want us to take $2,100 an acre.″

″Of course,″ added her husband, ″that property my wife is talking about has been developed; ours hasn’t.″

The development question is the rub, said ranger Miller.

″The Peakes probably are hoping to sell their property to some big developer but we are limited by law as to what we can offer them,″ he said. ″We can’t offer them any more than similar, surrounding undeveloped property is bringing.″

Like Sen. Gore, officials of the Appalachian Trail Club, a federation of 31 hiking and outing clubs that oversees the trail in cooperation with the Forest Service and the National Park Service, also have asked the government to seize the land.

Peake said he doesn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker but he also doesn’t want the government to take his land, which he says contains thousands of valuable Fraser fir seedlings.

″That’s why we put in the road,″ he said. ″The government closed the original road to vehicles years ago and we had no access, no way to get up to the top of the mountain to those trees except to walk up.″

″Frankly, we just got tired of walking,″ he said. ″Also, my grandfather used to own that entire mountain at one time and the government has taken it, piece by piece. Now, they’re after the best part, and we think they should have to pay what its worth if they’re going to take it away from us.″

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