A handful of souls gathering in homes 25 years ago led to the Regional Land Trust that has protected nearly 60,000 acres in Western North Carolina
By Michael M. Barrick
MORGANTON, N.C. — The Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina began roughly 25 years ago when a handful of souls gathering in homes successfully preserved a large portion of the South Mountains from being destroyed. Known then as the South Mountains Coalition, the small band of activists has evolved today into the regional Land Trust whose footprint can be felt in dozens of locations in eight Western North Carolina counties. It moved into its new space in Morganton in the center of its service area in 2019.
The Foothills Conservancy’s service area includes Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Cleveland, Lincoln, McDowell and Rutherford counties. It also includes three major river basins — the Broad, Catawba and Yadkin.
According to Taproot, the organization’s annual magazine, the organization’s purpose is “Protecting the natural and cultural heritage of the Blue Ridge Mountains and foothills in Western North Carolina by conserving scenic and recreational landscapes, productive farms and forests, healthy watersheds, rich biodiversity, and vital wildlife habitat.”
Since its humble beginnings, the Foothills Conservancy has protected 59,000 acres and 14 local farms. It has transferred 51,286 acres to public ownership and owns and stewards 4,518 acres.
Oak Hill Community Park and Forest
Currently, the organization is raising $3.1 million to purchase 651 acres for a future public park in the Oak Hill community of Burke County, about 10 minutes northwest of Morganton. Planned in two phases, $1.8 has been raised towards the project, which will be known as the Oak Hill Community Park and Forest.
Cooperation is the key in Oak Hill, shared Foothills Conservancy Development Coordinator Sophie Shelton. “We are actively fundraising for it. We had a public meeting at Oak Hill Methodist Church and about 80 people from the Oak Hill community attended. They were all very excited. The sentiment was, ‘Yes, we want it!’”
Among its potential uses are a Greenway Trail that would connect it with the Morganton Greenway and Fonta Flora State Trail; Working Lands, which would be designated for community agriculture; Outdoor Education, which could include outdoor classrooms, field trips and physical education; Recreation Trails, which could include mountain biking, trail running, bird watching and hiking; Restoration Areas, to re-establish native forests; and, Community Events such as trail races, celebrations, tournaments and more.
Projects and Partnering
The Oak Hill project is a testimony to the Foothills Conservancy’s determination by the board and staff to fulfill their mission; it also is an example of the importance of partnerships. Just seven staff members work to direct and steward about $4 million annually to preserve land across the region.
According to Shelton, “Yearly, we close between 10 to 12 projects.” Yet, she noted, it sometimes may be years between a project’s inception and closing. For each project, observed Shelton, “We seek to preserve places because of their rare and significant natural resources or to ensure there is public access. Sometimes it’s both.”
Foothills Conservancy obtains property through various ways. Sometimes it will approach a landowner; other times, the opposite will happen. The organization also works with existing non-profits and state and local agencies.
The Foothills Conservancy makes it a priority to buy land adjacent or approximate to existing protected places, such as South Mountains State Park. Shelton explained, “We try to be strategic in connecting lands by choosing projects that adjoin other projects”
That philosophy has clearly guided 10 projects described as the “Foothills Footprint” in Taproot. The projects stretch from the Jacob’s Fork River in Catawba County’s rolling hills to Jonas Ridge in Avery County at the top of steep slopes of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Known on the group’s website as “Places we Protect,” They include: Little Cedar Mountain — 96 acres; Jacob Fork East – Catawba County Parklands — 188 acres; Paddy Creek – Lake James State Park — 36 acres; Cone Creek Meadow — 20 acres; South Mountains Preserve Addition — 90 acres (expanding it to a total of 1,800 acres); Mineral Springs Mountain — 4.5 acres; Misty Meadow Farm — 195 acres; Overmountain Victory Trail – Linville Mountain Trailhead — 8 acres; Jonas Ridge Bog — 17 acres; and, Bobs Creek Natural Area Phase II — 2,200 acres.
Yet, Shelton said the Foothills Conservancy is aware of challenges and is always looking for land to protect. She noted, that like any nonprofit, funding is challenging and uncertain. “You never know when someone will say we don’t want to fund this anymore.” Additionally, the rapid growth in the region is harming air quality. She is also concerned about drinking water. So, partners, from landowners to communities, are essential.
Motives vary. Shelton shared an example. “When we close on property we’ll ask questions about why people donate land to us.” She observed. “On our outreach for the trail, we always find willing landowners. Yes, there are tax benefits but many people just want the land permanently protected. We love working with those people.” She added also, “For some, it is sacred land. It has been enjoyed by generations of families. They want to protect it for future generations.” She added, “We assess the property and survey it. We don’t take every single project, but we do take most of them. For instance, she shared, “For recent projects along the Henry Fork River, the entire community, concerned about water quality as well, was involved in the effort to protect the surrounding land.”
Cooperation is essential. “We work on obtaining land for planned trails,” said Shelton. Currently, the Wilderness Gateway State Trail — planned to run through South Mountain State Park — on its path from Catawba County in the east to Chimney Rock State Park in the west — is one such trail. According to Taproot, parcels have already been acquired in Catawba County and along South Mountains State Park. For remaining parcels, “that’s where partnerships will come heavily into play” said Land Protection Director Tom Kenney.
While this will require acquisitions, it will also require volunteers under the direction of Brittany Watkins, the organization’s newest staff member. Kenney said, “ … her responsibilities will be to focus on trail projects and continue to build our volunteer program — and we think of our biggest volunteer opportunities in upcoming months and years will be the Wilderness Gateway State Trail. Yes it will take some time. It’ll take work and partners and people-power, but it’s exciting. A new state trail doesn’t happen very often.”
Indeed, the trail — along with the Overmountain National Historic Trail — will bring the total of state trails in North Carolina to eight. Five pass through the Foothills Conservany’s service region.
Partnering Initiative — Our Big Backyard
Perhaps one of the most compelling examples of what the value of partnering does to help the Foothills Conservancy achieve its mission is the “Our Big Backyard: Adventure in Nature” initiative. Providing children aged 8-12 access to nature through the cooperation of several local agencies and funded by grants, private gifts and in-kind donations, the program makes serving children who could not otherwise afford a summer camp its priority.
Transparency & Board Governance
In my analysis of hundreds of nonprofits, good intentions are never enough. Nor are mission statements. What matters is if the board and staff understand the mission, are dedicated to it, and are transparent in doing it. They must be good stewards of the funds entrusted to them. The board must be diverse, representative of its mission, and independent. Staff must be subject-matter-experts and left to work without micromanagement from the board or upper management. Revenues and expenditures are obviously important, but so also are trends, reserves, funding allocation (i.e., management and administrative costs), and vulnerability of revenue streams.
Overally, the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina makes top marks in these critical areas. Nevertheless, of revenues for the last fiscal year available (Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2018), of the nearly $4 million in revenue, just over $2 million comes from government grants. Hence, it is imperative that those that support their mission may want to contact them to help either with a contribution or letter in support to city, county, state and federal officials.
In his letter published in Taproot, Executive Director Andrew Kota wrote, “With our new building comes new conservation opportunities and a renewed commitment to connect our work to the communities and people we serve, fostering a new generation of conservationists with the same dedication to protecting our treasured natural heritage forests, rivers, family farms and recreation areas.” He has the team to accomplish that.
The staff includes Andrew Kota, Executive Director; Beth Willard-Patton, Associate Director; Tom Kenney, Land Protection Director; Ryan Sparks, Stewardship Director; Sophie Shelton, Development Coordinator; Isaac Crouch, Office & Finance Administrator; and, Brittany Watkins, Special Projects Coordinator.
The Board of Directors includes Chair Ron Beane of Caldwell County, Vice Chair Martha Whitfield of Burke and Mecklenburg Counties, Treasurer Sallie Craig of Cleveland County, Secretary Mike Tanner of Rutherford County, Ann Costello of McDowell County, Margaret “Peg” Broyhill of Caldwell County, Forrest Ferrell of Catawba County, Meg Nealon of Catawba County, Allen Fullwood of Burke County, Jim Goldsmith of McDowell County, Randy Loftis of Burke County, Jim Sain of McDowell County, J. Gordon Scott III of Rutherford County, Robin Brackett of Cleveland County, Michelle Garey of Cleveland County, Andrew Blumenthal of McDowell and Mecklenburg Counties, Susan Powers of Caldwell County, and Jeff MacKinney of Burke County.
Phone: (828) 437-9930
Mail: P.O. Box 3023, Morganton, NC 28680
Physical: 204 Avery Ave., Morganton, NC 28655
© Michael M. Barrick, 2019. Pisgah Forest, mountain range and Wilson Creek photographs by Michael M. Barrick; all other images and photos courtesy of Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina.