By Frances Figart
Land protection and conservation are topics that come to mind this time of year when we celebrate Earth Day. Those who work in this field currently face a changing landscape, both literally and figuratively.
How do recent political shifts affect the work of public and private land stewards in our region? We talked with eight professionals about the issues they see, their outlook for the future and the best action items for concerned citizens.
Private Land Voices
Jay Erskine Leutze, board president, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy
It surprises some people that land conservation is popular with members of both political parties. Farmers and hunters love the land as much as birdwatchers and hikers do—and that goes for members of Congress as well.
The land trusts in WNC, under the umbrella of Blue Ridge Forever, were just awarded $8 million to purchase farmland conservation easements that will enable many farm families in the region to stay on their land and keep it in production. Those dollars will have a real impact on retaining the cultural and historic use of some iconic farms in our landscape.
A lot of successful land conservation comes down to good communication and keeping an open door to all perspectives. Whenever there is a new administration, land trusts lift our voices to communicate clearly about the value of conservation easement tax incentives, voluntary land conservation by private landowners and the ecologic, economic and cultural value of public land. That does not change regardless of who controls the White House or the Congress.
Having said that, what happens with federal budgets does impact the amount of work we can accomplish, whether we’re looking at farm bill dollars to match private donations, or funds available to purchase critical inholdings in Pisgah National Forest.
Connect: landtrustalliance.org, blueridgeforever.info
Sharon Taylor, executive director, Mainspring Conservation Trust
It will be interesting to see how the new administration prioritizes farmland conservation programs and funding for public lands. Mainspring Conservation Trust doesn’t rely heavily on federal funding to help with operations, but rather for specific projects such as streambank restoration and, most recently, brownfield remediation. We are concerned about EPA funding for an ongoing brownfield cleanup project in the Town of Franklin, in the area around the historic Nikwasi Mound, but we’re hopeful that program will not be cut. If we’re able to secure funding for cleanup, it will not only prevent contamination to the Little Tennessee River but also provide economic benefit for the town and region.
If environmental regulations are drastically rolled back, I think we’ll see our environment degrade rapidly and it will be a wakeup call to the public. In the end, it may strengthen and expand efforts to protect our air, waters, farmland soils and all of the natural resources we take for granted every day.
Kieran Roe, executive director, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy
We at Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) see that land conservation and voluntary protection of our natural resources are very popular across the political spectrum. We remain cautiously optimistic that the underlying public support will help ensure that government conservation programs and policies will not be undermined.
An important part of our work at CMLC includes acquisition of land intended for long-term ownership by public agencies, including federal agencies such as the US Forest Service. One concern is recent rules changes passed by the US House that would make it easier to sell off federal land. It might start to undermine our claim that by transferring land to USFS we are seeing it permanently protected, if in fact agencies such as USFS begin to divest themselves of land. We have completed two transfers of land to Pisgah National Forest in the past six months. Obviously we hope there is no threat that the lands will ever leave USFS ownership.
Carl Silverstein, executive director, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy
The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) really is looking at the long view. Our founders began working to protect the Highlands of Roan in 1966, and we have been focused on protecting these iconic locations in the mountains for decades. Over that time, we have seen many changes in the political sphere and worked diligently to build a strong institution that can last over time. For example, we have been intent on creating endowments for the strength of our organization, and we ask for stewardship gifts for conservation projects—to offset the ongoing cost of stewarding permanently protected lands.
For those interested in conservation, we encourage them to become members of their local land trust and learn about the economic impact of permanent conservation in our communities. Go on a hike or visit some of these places—SAHC offers guided group outings, and this year we have two series of theme-based hikes in the region, as well as exciting opportunities like “Yoga in the Vineyard.” Also, planned giving makes a definite impact for our ability to continue this work.
Public Land Voices
Debbie Crane, communication director, The Nature Conservancy, North Carolina Chapter
The Nature Conservancy has a long history of working in Western North Carolina. We have helped to protect more than a hundred thousand acres of land— much of which is now in public ownership at places such as Chimney Rock State Park, Grandfather Mountain State Park and Nantahala National Forest. Today we continue that protection work but are also bringing our substantial science resources to bear on the issue of forest management, both by ourselves and by our conservation partners.
Our work has always been supported by both sides of the political aisle. We have no reason to believe that is going to change. Nature unites us. It does not divide us.
Kevin Massey, executive director, Wild South
We currently enjoy a productive partnership with the US Forest Service, working together to preserve federal public lands for the benefit of the WNC community and beyond. The community, US Forest Service and area conservation organizations all have common cause to oppose disposal of federal public lands by the new administration.
We must all come together to protect the fabric of our region’s economy and culture, of which federal public lands are an essential part. Building this consensus and advocating for our priceless public lands will be an ongoing focus for Wild South under the new administration, as it has since our inception 25 years ago.
Michelle Ruigrok, outreach coordinator, The Wilderness Society Southern Appalachian Office
Congress and the administration are working to undo environmental protections under the pretense of supporting businesses. They see environmental policies as inefficient and wasteful, but the truth is that those policies are in place to address corporate practices that have harmed public health and wellbeing.
We don’t know yet how national legislation will play out locally, but a general trend is giving states more power to regulate, which can lead to fewer environmental protections. The Wilderness Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the Roadless Rule are bedrock conservation laws that have been instrumental in protecting the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest so that we have the beautiful landscape that you see today. If current attempts to weaken these laws are successful, the next four years will be a long struggle to defend our public lands, clean water, air and wildlife.
If our federal land managers (US Forest Service and National Park Service) don’t get the funding and support that they need from Congress, we will feel the repercussions directly at the local level. Projects like habitat restoration and wildlife conservation won’t make any progress, trails and roads will deteriorate (there’s only so much that overworked volunteer groups can do) and recreation facilities will suffer.
Todd Witcher, executive director, Discover Life in America
Our small, nonprofit conservation organization focused on scientific research and education always lives on the edge of survival even in good times. Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee is the setting for our primary biodiversity conversation work. On one side we are in the hotbed of the “anti-science” movement. On the other side we’re dealing with a “once-in-a-generation” wildfire event. Our traditional funders are forced to choose between supporting science and increased human needs—and, while both are equally important, in this circumstance science comes out the loser.
The characteristic of any small nonprofit is very small staff, limited resources and focused work, and the current climate puts that traditionally successful recipe in peril. One of the necessary adaptations is we spend a lot more time defending what we do, raising money to do it and looking for new funding sources than we spend actually doing the work! But biodiversity work is much too important to let slip by the wayside, so we must find a way to continue.
What You Can Do
- Talk with neighbors and friends to understand differing views.
- Stay abreast of proposed changes to programs and policies.
- Support an advocacy organization.
- Support conservation organizations with donations of money and/or time by volunteering.
- Join one or more of these organizations and sign up for their newsletters.
- Join your local land trust. There are 10 of them in WNC and you can learn about them at blueridgeforever.info.
- Consider your local land trust in your estate planning.
- Stay in touch with local, state and federal representatives to express support for programs such as the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was reauthorized for just three years in 2015.
- Reach any office on Capitol Hill by calling 202.224.3121.