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Billionaire seeks to conserve wilderness areas in McDowell
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Billionaire seeks to conserve wilderness areas in McDowell

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For years, one of the wealthiest people in North Carolina has been quietly and steadily doing his part to make sure the natural wilderness areas of McDowell County are conserved for future generations.

Tim Sweeney is a video game programmer and business owner. He is the founder and CEO of Epic Games and is the creator of the Unreal Engine, a game development platform.

Sweeney, who was born in 1970 and lives in Cary, has been listed by Forbes as among the few billionaires living in North Carolina. He was listed by Forbes as having a net worth of $2 billion as of 2019, according to online sources.

Through his limited liability company 130 of Chatham, Sweeney has been steadily purchasing wilderness areas in western North Carolina for the purpose of conservation. As of last month, 130 of Chatham LLC owns 139 different parcels of land in McDowell with the largest separate one consisting of 5,700 acres, according to Art Uphold with the McDowell County Tax Department.

Much of the land Sweeney owns in McDowell lies in the southern area. This includes the Box Creek Wilderness which covers more than 5,800 acres in southern McDowell and northern Rutherford counties near U.S. 221 South.

A biodiversity and wildlife habitat assessment conducted in cooperation with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program showed that the wilderness area was one of the top 75 Significant Natural Heritage Areas (SNHAs) in the state, out of more than 3,000 such designated areas, in terms of rare species and community types found.

The Box Creek Wilderness was once called North Carolina’s “largest private registered Significant Natural Heritage Area,” according to previous stories in The McDowell News.

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But in 2013, Sweeney fought a legal battle against Rutherford Electric Membership Corp.’s plan to run a power line through the Box Creek Wilderness by filing a condemnation of his property.

Rutherford Electric said the transmission line was needed to serve 5,000 people in the area of Burke, McDowell and Rutherford counties. A judge in Rutherford County dismissed the lawsuit and it was eventually settled with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, according to online sources.

Sweeney’s 130 of Chatham LLC owns numerous other parcels of land in McDowell County as well. This includes land near Old Fort. For example, there is a 1,753-acre tract in the Crooked Creek community. It has an estimated land value of $4,207,200.

There is a 2,075.6-acre tract in Dysartsville along Polly Spout, Rhom Town and Vein Mountain Road. It has an estimated land value of $3,300,200. Some parcels are smaller, according to county tax maps.

For his philanthropy, Sweeney received the Stanback Award for land conservation at the 2014 N.C. Land Trusts Awards ceremony.

The normally reclusive Sweeney did not contact The McDowell News directly during the legal fight over the Box Creek Wilderness. He preferred to have a spokesperson do his talking to the news media during that time.

But Sweeney did respond to The McDowell News’ recent inquiries about his purchase of thousands of acres of land in the local community.

“All of the land I’ve bought is on track for eventual permanent conservation, with around 4,000 acres already transferred to the state parks system and game lands, and 7,000 acres under easement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife System,” he said in an email to The McDowell News. “The whole project will likely take a couple decades to complete. The aim is to create a continuous corridor of conservation land running from South Mountains State Park and Gamelands west to Pisgah National Forest and Chimney Rock Park.”

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