out frThanks to some fortunate happenstance and a lot of hard work from the staff at the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, a piece of property in downtown Franklin will go from being a potential environmental nightmare to a model example of restoration and redevelopment. 

“We wanted to improve the area, but we didn’t think the opportunity would be available so quickly,” said LTLT Executive Director Sharon Taylor. “But our organization is in a perfect position to take the title of that property and it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Western North Carolina residents will be well served by the merger of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.

The merger undoubtedly makes sense from an administrative and fund-raising perspective, something employees and board members emphasized in an article in last week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News. It will give the LTLT (the new organization will retain that name) added resources as it expands its scope in the six westernmost counties, particularly in the Tuckasegee and Hiawassee watersheds.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the merger is a manifestation of the progressive approach to conservation that leaders of these two organizations have helped promote during the last several decades.

“We already had plans to broaden our scope and the areas we touch,” said Ken Murphy, board chairman of the LTLT. “Land and water are almost inseparable.”

That concept — that protecting land in turns help protect the water resources — sounds like common sense. Making it happen in the real world, however, isn’t so easy. LTLT and LTWA volunteers and employees have put together an admirable record of achievement over the years. By researching and providing data on the unique characteristics of the Little Tennessee watershed, these organizations convinced government officials, granting agencies and private entities that protecting the Little Tennessee River watershed was worthwhile.

When I first started covering this region as a reporter and editor, two people who have played a critical role in the LTLT and LTWA became trusted sources and ultimately friends. Paul Carlson and Bill McLarney helped me to understand that in today’s world, conservation isn’t just about locking up land in it wilderness state. The idea that there can be multiple and varied uses and therefore creative ways to preserve land and water was new to me. That approach has made these two organizations more successful than most at bridging political differences and building coalitions.

The LTWA and LTLT aren’t out there alone, that’s for sure. There are many land trusts, environmental groups, watershed associations and individuals who have done yeoman’s work to protect land and water in this region. Ten years ago when development pressures had many of us fearful that much of the rural and wilderness land remaining in the mountains would soon by lost, these voices were often drowned out.

It’s important that the new Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the other environmental groups succeed in adapting to the changing fiscal and political landscape. That’s the only way these organizations will survive and thrive in the decades to come, and their continued success is necessary to preserve the way of life we cherish in Western North Carolina.

Two of Western North Carolina’s most storied conservation groups, both based in Macon County, merged this month into a single entity.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association has been absorbed into The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and is being touted as a win-win for regional conservation efforts and as a means to financially help underpin regional conservation efforts.

The Land Trust name will be retained for now. The merged organization has the combined backing of more than 500 members.

The smaller of the two nonprofits, the watershed association, had just three employees. It has struggled to adequately tap spigots of grant funding. Those traditional nonprofit-geared pools of money are continuing to dry up in the face of the difficult economy.

The Land Trust, on the other hand, just completed its best fundraising year ever. A few years ago, anticipating stagnating grant opportunities, the larger eight-employee group deliberately and successfully began to diversify its revenue stream. The Land Trust now relies as much on individual, private support as on grant funding.

Such transformations haven’t proven possible, at least not to the same degree, for smaller nonprofits such as the watershed association. Also difficult for small groups is keeping and recruiting experienced board members, thereby ensuring stable governance.

Often small groups are almost totally reliant on the energy and charisma of a single leader, said Paul Carlson, who helped guide The Land Trust from a similar small nonprofit to, at least for this region, a large one.

“It’s in part a question of economy of scale,” Carlson said. “I think the toughest job I know is to be director of a small nonprofit, because you have to wear so many hats.”

Jenny Sanders, executive director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, revived the nonprofit five years ago, he said. Talks were actually under way then to perhaps merge the two groups, but that didn’t happen because, Carlson said, of the caliber of Sanders’ leadership.

Sanders opted not to take a new job with the Land Trust following the merger. The decision was personal, a desire on her part to pursue other interests, she said. Sanders supports the merger, saying it simply “makes sense” for both organizations.

“I believe for a lot of reasons this was absolutely a smart move,” she said. “And it will provide a unified front for conservation in the six westernmost counties.”

 

Ensuring the work goes on

The watershed association’s most recognizable project is ongoing aquatic monitoring conducted by a corps of volunteers and overseen by Bill McLarney of Macon County. The biologist has studied the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries for more than two decades. McLarney, via the watershed association, has assembled a body of data on what lives in the Little Tennessee waterways — from miniscule larvae to newly discovered fish species — that’s difficult to find duplicated elsewhere in the U.S. McLarney’s work helped the Little Tennessee earn a reputation as one of the most biologically intact rivers. The baseline of what species are supposed to live in the river serves a greater purpose, however. If a species turns up in fewer numbers or disappears, it would alert future researchers that trouble was brewing.

McLarney, an original founder of both organizations, described the merger as “a natural progression” for the nonprofits.

Ken Murphy, board chairman for the Land Trust, said timing of the merger couldn’t be better.

“We already had plans to broaden our scope, and the areas we touch,” Murphy said. “Land and water are almost inseparable.”

The Little Tennessee often touts its work of protecting land along the Little Tennessee corridor as protecting the river itself, based on the premise that saving surrounding land from development keeps the river ecosystem from being disturbed.

The now 10-employee Land Trust plans to expand its work further into the Tuckasegee and Hiawassee river basins, the board chair said.

There are no plans at this time to merge The Land Trust with additional conservation organizations, Carlson said.

Murphy emphasized that there is an important people component to that strategy of concentrating on both land and water — to connect all of us to the natural world.

The merger will move those plans forward exponentially, Murphy said, because it serves as an opportunity “to bring in-house real expertise on water issues” and combine that knowledge with those conservation tasks The Land Trust has long focused upon.

The Land Trust, established 15 years ago, has forged the very concept of private land protection in the state’s westernmost counties, plus successfully worked on habitat restoration and cultural landscape conservation. The latter includes farmland and historic preservation. The group’s crowning success was the preservation of the 4,500-acre Needmore Tract, which straddles Macon and Swain counties along the Little Tennessee River, and was the likely site of development.

The watershed association helped secure the Needmore tract, plus partnered with the Land Trust and Macon County’s Soil and Water Conservation District on stream-bank restoration.

 

Expanding focus

The watershed association has a history of open advocacy on conservation issues, particularly under the out-spoken Sanders, its most-recent and final executive director. By contrast, The Land Trust has been more low-key and behind-the-scenes in its approach, though there have been issues in which the board has elected to become openly involved.

“The Land Trust has tried hard to not get caught up in polarizing issues,” Carlson said, “and we will continue to lead on results-oriented work.”

Carlson and Murphy both said The Land Trust is considering a more pro-active stance when it comes to conservation protections. And the spunky, outspoken and out-front history of the watershed association should slide nicely into that new focus.

“In the past, we have taken public positions on issues that involve the environment and conservation in our area,” Murphy said of The Land Trust. “But we plan to be a little more public about our positions and views of things that are happening in the region.”

 

Conservation merger

• The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee works to conserve the waters, forests, farms, and heritage of the Upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River Valleys. The organization works in partnership with private landowners, public agencies, and others to conserve land.

• The Little Tennessee Watershed Association works to protect and restore the health of the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries through monitoring, education, habitat restoration and citizen action.

For two decades, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association in Franklin has been monitoring the health of the river’s water basin from north Georgia to Fontana Lake.

Last week, the group released a State of the Streams report, showcasing both its work and what has been found over the years, particularly the trends from 2002 through 2010. The unveiling took place at a noon luncheon of the Macon County League of Women Voters in Franklin, with about 30 people in attendance.

Overall in the upper Little Tennessee River watershed, two worrisome points stand out, according to the report. Monitoring of threatened and endangered species in the mainstream below Franklin suggests that the decline of native mussels is long term and not just cyclical; and a fish species, the Wounded Darter, has almost completely disappeared from the Cullasaja River.

The good news? The most significant development was the closing in 2006 of the Fruit of the Loom plant in Rabun Gap, Ga., which the group said accounted for more than 95 percent of the total permitted industrial discharges to the entire watershed.

While the closing was hard on those whose livelihoods were dependent on the plant (30 percent of the workforce was from Macon County), benefits were almost immediately visible in the downstream ecosystem. This included the recovery of riverweed, an aquatic plant of the Little Tennessee.

Additionally, in Highlands, macroinvertebrates from Mill Creek are showing slow but continual recovery following the late 1990s shutdown of the Highlands sewer plant.

The condition of the river in the now-protected Needmore area (since 1999) also suggests that positive actions have, at the very least, “counterbalanced” negative trends. The Needmore tract, purchased from Duke Energy to protect it from development through a combination of private and public funding, has been under management by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission since 2002.

“Thirteen miles of free-flowing river, no houses or bridges — that’s a pretty unique thing in this part of the world. It’s a really exceptional piece of river,” Bill McLarney, an aquatic biologist who has studied the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries for at least two decades, said of the Needmore stretch of the Little Tennessee River.

Additionally, “we are relatively blessed that we don’t have a lot of point-source pollution,” McLarney said. “Habitat modification and sedimentation is the biggest problem here … that’s what we need to focus the most attention on if we want to see healthier streams.”

Jason Meador, the watershed program coordinator for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, said the group focuses on a “holistic approach.” The staff and the many volunteers involved don’t just study fish, they also look at and study everything involved in a healthy watershed.

That’s also involved restoration projects, such as taking out culverts and replacing them with bridges, such as the group did on Bradley Creek. The culverts — essentially places where a stream is forced into a giant pipe to pass under a road — often block fish from being able to travel freely up and down tributaries, particularly if the culvert is crumbling, Meador said.

Additionally, the culverts often can’t handle big storm flows, flushing excess sediment.

 

Where is the Little Tennessee watershed?

The upper Little Tennessee watershed covers 450 square miles of forests, fields, towns and communities in the heart of the Southern Appalachians.

With headwaters in Rabun County, Georgia at the confluence of Billy and Keener creeks, the Little Tennessee River flows north and northwest for 55 miles, unimpeded for its entire length except for Porters Bend Dam, which forms the relatively tiny (250 acre) Lake Emory in the town of Franklin. Before reaching Lake Emory, the river makes its way through a flat, wide valley, dropping less than 50 feet of elevation in more than 10 miles of channel length. Here, the valley is defined by the Nantahala mountains to the west and the Fishhawk mountains and Blue Ridge escarpment to the east.

The stretch of the river between Lake Emory and Fontana Lake is one of the highest quality rivers in the Southern Appalachians, making it unique among the Blue Ridge rivers to have escaped much of the industrial pollution that has degraded so many other rivers in the region, according to the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.

Not even the looming shadow of the nation’s worst environmental disaster in two decades could spoil the mood at the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative listening session in Asheville last week.

Recreation, conservation and preservation-minded environmentalists from all over Western North Carolina streamed into the Ferguson Auditorium at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College for a chance to influence federal policy.

“They’re calling it a listening session,” said Abe Nail, 56, of Globe. “I can’t imagine the Bush administration doing anything like that.”

Judi Parker, 63, also of Globe –– which is tucked into the middle of the Pisgah National Forest just south of Blowing Rock –– marveled at the crowd of people swarming around her.

“I’m just glad so many people came,” she said.

Nail and Parker were two of more than 500 people who came to participate in a project inaugurated by President Barack Obama in April. Administration officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Interior –– all of which have a stake in overseeing America’s public lands –– have joined together for a road show to listen to the people their policies impact.

Paul Carlson, executive director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee based in Franklin, said the administration’s willingness to send senior officials to the listening sessions showed it was serious about supporting locally-based conservation efforts.

“Those are pretty senior guys and for them to be out there taking that kind of time to listen to us is pretty impressive,” Carlson said.

The group has toured a dozen cities already to meet with stakeholder groups and talk about how the federal government can do a better job expanding access to outdoor recreation and land conservation in everything from city parks to national forests.

Will Shafroth, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior, is one of a handful of officials who have been to every city so far. Shafroth said the trip has given him a lift during a trying period.

“It’s invigorating because with the dark cloud of the oil spill in the Gulf, which has been a real drag on our sense of what’s happening, you come into a place like this and it’s just full of energy,” Shafroth said.

The strain of the past months showed on Shafroth’s face, and during his opening remarks he managed to forget where he was, thanking the people of “Asheville, Tennessee” for the turnout.

Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy handled the slip graciously and led the audience –– which was made up of a wide range of characters from AmeriCorps volunteers to non-profit executive directors to local politicians –– in a rousing call and response that confirmed the real venue for the event.

The value of the listening session as a policy tool may not yet be determined, but its worth as a morale building exercise was evident from the start.

Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, invoked the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt in his remarks and set the tone for the dialogue later in the day.

“We know now that the solutions are not going to come from Washington, if they ever did,” Strickland said.

The room buzzed as Julie Judkins of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a facilitator in the morning’s youth event, offered some feedback direct from the young people to the big bosses.

“Even though we love Smoky [the Bear], maybe it’s time to get him on the iPhone,” Judkins said.

John Jarvis, head of the National Park Service, offered a succinct summation of the aim of the event in his address.

“We need your ideas so we can spread them around to other parts of the country,” Jarvis said.

The listening sessions have been organized to inform a report that will be on President Barack Obama’s desk by November 15. After the hour-long introductory session that included an eight-minute inspirational video invoking the nation’s relationship with its public lands, the participants headed to breakout sessions in classroom settings to discuss their own experiences.

The sessions were organized to record what strategies were working, what challenges organizations were facing, how the federal government could better facilitate change, and what existing tools could be used to create improvements in the system.

In a breakout session focused on outdoor recreation, participants affiliated with trail clubs, mountain biking groups, paddling groups, tourism offices and scout troops piled into a room.

Mark Singleton, executive director of Sylva-based American Whitewater, participated in the president’s kickoff conference in Washington, D.C., back in April. Two months later he was telling the facilitator that the government had to work to create better and more accessible options for recreation on public land so the younger generation would grow up with a conservation ethic.

“It’s hard to protect something if you don’t love it,” Singleton said. “There can’t be a disconnect with the younger generation.”

Eric Woolridge, the Wautauga County Tourism and Development Authority’s outdoor recreation planner, hailed the new cooperative model in Boone that uses a local tax on overnight lodging to fund outdoor recreation infrastructure projects.

Woolridge oversees an outdoor recreation infrastructure budget of $250,000 derived from proceeds of a 6 percent occupancy tax.

“The key is that we have a revenue stream, and it always stays there,” Woolridge said.

There were specific asks for cooperation from the Feds, too. A woman from North Georgia wanted to know how to get memorandums of understanding with various agencies to help her youth orienteering program.

Don Walton, a board member with the Friends of the Mountain To Sea Trail, asked that the U.S. Park Service to consider allowing more camping opportunities on land owned by the Blue Ridge Parkway.

While each set of stakeholders had their own pet issues, nearly everyone was urging the Feds to ramp up their contribution to the Land And Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenues from off-shore oil leases to benefit outdoor recreation projects across the country.

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar authorized $38 million for state projects through the fund this year, but the administration has announced its aim to authorize the full funding level of $900 million for the LWCF by 2014.

Woolridge, Singleton and many other outdoor recreation stakeholders also waned to emphasize that their work isn’t just about playing, it’s about economic development.

“Outdoor recreation and conservation is a legitimate development strategy,” Woolridge said. “In fact, it may be the only development strategy for rural communities.”

For Shafroth, who ran a non-profit in Colorado before taking his job at the Department of Interior, the economic challenges of the moment are an ever-present reality.

“With the shortfalls with resources we have right now and the size of people’s goals… in some cases, there’s a pretty big gulf right now,” Shafroth said.

But more than just dollars and cents, the listening tour is an organizing effort, a way to get conservation-minded people in front of their government to start a long-overdue conversation.

Abe Nail said his attendance at the event wasn’t about money.

“You can’t buy conservation. Conservation is passion driven,” Nail said.

To submit comments online to the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, visit http://ideas.usda.gov/ago/ideas.nsf or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

By Ken Murphy

Western North Carolina is a special place, a region with awe-inspiring scenic vistas, waterways and forested watersheds that are home to unmatched biodiversity, and rural landscapes and cultural sites that remind us of our heritage on a daily basis. However, the demands of the modern economy have led to the loss of many of our working farms and forests, the disappearance of wild areas, and threats to clean air and water.

Fortunately, our region is blessed with many community-based environmental and conservation organizations, each seeking to protect our land, water, and wildlife. These local organizations (including local offices of national organizations) are uniquely positioned to “make things happen” through decisions of local stakeholders and elected officials so that effective and innovative conservation efforts can succeed.

Because tax and spending policies are increasingly set on the federal level, the framework in which our local organizations act is largely determined on the national stage. Our local organizations — no matter how hard-working and resourceful — cannot continue to be successful if they work in an atmosphere of indifference to the challenges they face. Since federal policymakers act in a remote urban setting, and since future generations cannot vote, the risk of inadequate support for local conservation objectives is high. Thankfully, somebody is now listening.

Last April 16, President Obama established the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, led by the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, the Administrator of the EPA, and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. The Initiative recognized that our country is in many ways losing touch with — and in many cases losing — the places and traditions that have helped make America special. Importantly, the President ordered that the Initiative conduct listening and learning sessions throughout the country, sessions in which the full range of interested groups could speak to the problems and solutions involved with protecting special places. A listening session is scheduled for Asheville on July 15 (see www.doi.gov/americasgreatoutdoors for details).

Given that somebody is listening, we have not only an opportunity, but in some sense a duty, to speak out in order to enhance means of protecting our landscape and sharing our natural treasures with those who are losing touch with them. By speaking of our accomplishments, we can encourage others to replicate and build upon our success. By speaking of our challenges, we can encourage decisions that help lower barriers rather than raise them.

For example, the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee (LTLT), which primarily operates west of the Balsam Mountains, plans to speak of the success we have had in working with local landowners and in combining private contributions and government grants in order to acquire and protect significant portions of Cowee, the richest and most intact cultural landscape in the region we cover. Cowee was the principal commercial and diplomatic center of the Mountain Cherokee in the 18th century. William Bartram, who traveled through the area in 1775, described the setting as “one of the most charming natural mountainous landscapes perhaps any where to be seen.” The, LTLT has made great strides in securing this landscape, and in 2007 succeeded in conserving the Cowee Mound itself in partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and the state of North Carolina.

LTLT has plans for further work in the region, and these plans are not without challenges. For example, through a generous private donation and financing through a local bank, LTLT was recently able to purchase a 108-acre forested tract that includes Hall Mountain, which overlooks the Little Tennessee River and the Cowee Mound. As a result, LTLT has expanded to over 380 acres the network of conserved land surrounding the ancient mound site. LTLT is working with the EBCI and others to seek permanent protection of the Hall Mountain tract under the USDA-Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program.

Establishing the Hall Mountain tract as a community forest would provide tribal members and the surrounding community an opportunity for vocational education in forestry as well as an active demonstration site for quality forest stewardship. The tract could also be managed to provide artisan resources, such as white oak, to the Cherokee basket weavers.

While LTLT will speak to its successes and challenges in land conservation, the listening session in Asheville on July 15 is a rare opportunity to be heard on a number of outdoor-oriented issues. I hope to see you there.

Ken Murphy is vice chair of The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee

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