A Conservation Conversation


October 17, 2016

Some landowners along the Broad River in Rutherford County have put their land in conservation easements, which will help preserve the ecology of the river in perpetuity.

A quick dig through Merriam-Webster produces three definitions for the word 'conservation': "1) the protection of plants, animals, and natural resources; 2) the careful use of natural resources (such as trees, oil, etc.) to prevent them from being lost or wasted; 3) the things that are done to keep works of art or things of historical importance in good condition." There is consistency between the three, a theme of preservation of a resource's intrinsic value, be it ecological, economical, or cultural – each definition identifies its resource as an inherently good thing, which is important because it sets the precedent for protection, rather than exploitation, of the resource.

Now, when applied to land, the definition of conservation broadens. Ask a college-aged biology student and you'll get an entirely different answer than if you ask a farmer. The reason for this is not a lack of understanding in either party, but rather a difference in the interaction between the resource and the user, something that has changed considerably over time. And so, I want to invite you to a conservation conversation; I want to shed some light on a movement that, although little known or poorly understood, is responsible for the preservation of the vast majority of our landscape from meadow to mountain.

Land conservation in Western North Carolina, especially throughout the last 50 years, has been essential in protecting the natural heritage of one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, promoting the sustainable use and development of its resources, and preserving the deep history and unique cultures that have arisen within its landscapes. It's not been an easy task, with the constant development pressure, the increasing desire of thousands to retreat to the mountains both temporarily and permanently, and the economic downturns and the financial burden that accompanies the ownership of large tracts of family-owned lands during hard times. Despite these woes, the conservation community continues unfazed, working with all types of people to put thousands of acres into conservation easements for the benefit of us all.

You might be asking yourself right about now: "what is a conservation easement?" It's pretty simple, honestly – a landowner with "valuable" property engages in an agreement with a land trust or other conservation entity in which they agree to forfeit certain rights to their property (development, clear-cutting, road-building, etc.) in exchange for a tax write-off based on the appraised value of the land they're conserving – that's the gist of it. The "value" is derived from one or any combination of the following tenets it may possess and that would be protected: natural habitat; recreation or education; open space; and cultural or historical value. These agreements are made in perpetuity, and generally seek to do exactly what Merriam-Webster says: protect the lay of the land and its flora and fauna; to sustainably utilize resources in a way that promotes their health and proliferation; and to preserve cultural history. This is great, but many of you may be thinking: "how can you simultaneously protect and utilize natural resources?" The short answer is through balance.

In conservation, balance is achieved when the protection of resources is paired with a plan for their responsible and sustainable use. For example, let's say a landowner wants to protect 200 acres of forestland that has been in the family for a century, but they're facing a tough decision to sell to development because of the tax burden they face on the unused land. A conservation easement could help them with the tax burden, which is the biggest hump to get over, but the health of the forest needs to be addressed, as well, because it is the sentiment of many ecologists, including myself, that leaving a forest alone forever will not lead to its optimal health or productivity. This point represents a segue between definitions one and two of "conservation" – preservation versus utilization – the two aren't mutually exclusive. In reality, the practical and focused management of a forest ecosystem is necessary for optimal health and species conservation. So, going back to our original scenario, it would behoove the economic and cultural interests of the landowner to place their forested land into a conservation easement, while the ecological health of the land is bolstered through the development of a sustainable forest management plan that incorporates short- and long-term goals for improvement of the forest, both in terms of biological diversity and productivity. It's truly a win-win.

Webster's third definition of "conservation" definitely strikes a chord in my mind and heart, but not in the exact way that it is written. The term includes "the things that are done to keep works of art or things of historical importance in good condition." At face value, we're talking about objects: things rather than concepts. But nature, although broad, is tangible; a work of art. And, a centuries-old family farm/working forest is of historical importance, right? Of course! The settlers who eked out a hard living in these Southern Appalachian coves left behind a legacy of conservation, innovation in industry, and an older way of life to which there are few remaining modern comparisons. The incredibly hard work they put in to keep their "things" in good condition shows in our conservation landscapes. Take the community of Crabtree in Haywood County, for example, where hundreds and possibly thousands of acres of steep mountainside were cleared entirely of their native rocky substrate in order to allow for livestock to roam and graze. Those farmers cleared that land without modern machinery or tools. And just like I find old barns made of mighty chestnut still standing in fields, the nature, art, and culture of that time remain in our landscapes. Thus, conservation is "the thing that [is] done" to maintain the condition of our land.

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund was created by the NC General Assembly in 1996 and helps acquire conservation easements. If you see one of these signs while exploring in the woods, you are in a protected area.

We now have a responsibility. Without sustained efforts put forth by a diverse conservation community over many decades, we might be looking up into the mountains to a vastly different scene. Where it could have been homesites plastered across the face of a ridge, or a golf course at the top of a mountain, the dogged persistence of our conservation community and the willingness of landowners to conserve their property, their history, has led to the large-scale preservation of wildness all around us. And now we look up to find dense, green woods, unbroken by development, unscarred by roads; we look down from the mountaintop and see the fertile farms nestled in the valleys below. These landscapes and their resources, prepared through the labor of our ancestors and enjoyed by us all, deserve to be protected and uplifted so that our future generations don't have to rewrite the definition of conservation. It is our duty to protect them.


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