From the ground up: the people take a hike in a place that matters

From Canada to Georgia, behind every project and every acre OSI protects, there are people. Whether they’re lifelong environmentalists or new to conservation, each person has a connection to the land that has inspired them to protect it. Their stories are as diverse as the landscapes they are dedicated to protecting.

In this installment of From the Ground Up, OSI’s Southeast Field Coordinator, David Ray, hikes the Highlands of Roan in North Carolina with Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell and U.S. Senator Richard Burr.

September 2014 - I was yards away from the rocky summit on the Tennessee/North Carolina line when a member of my hiking party stopped to oblige a pair of backpackers’ request to be photographed in front of a sign reading “Jane Bald 5,807 ft.”  The photographer 
made sure they were ready, urged them to smile, and then counted to three and clicked. 

That’s a relatively common occurrence in the open balds and spruce fir forests of the Highlands of Roan—a spectacular Southern Appalachian landscape that is rich both biologically and historically. But today something uncommon was afoot here in the Roan. As my group continued northward along the Appalachian Trail, I couldn’t resist stepping back to ask the backpackers:  “Did anyone tell you who just took your picture?” “No,” they said. “Who was it?”  “The U.S. Secretary of the Interior,” I told them. “Sally Jewell.”

Natural history giants like Elisha Mitchell and John Muir visited the Roan in centuries past. They were drawn by the variety and rarity of plant life and the healing effects of the high elevation, which creates what is essentially a boreal climate in a southern location. Such visits are a source of local pride. But what stands out the most for me about this place are the actions of ordinary people, and the bond created among them by their experiences here.

I first hiked to the top of 6,165 foot Grassy Ridge, Secretary Jewell’s destination for the day, when I began my land trust career in 2002, carrying my 4 week-old daughter Esther inside my fleece jacket. Our family fell in love with the place, and we venture back to this spot annually for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy’s (SAHC’s) weekend-long work trip called the “Grassy Ridge Mow-Off.” For two decades, with weedeaters and loppers in hand, volunteers have formed a special bond as they pitch in to help the U.S. Forest Service maintain the open balds on this land held in the public trust.

On this day, Secretary Jewell was blending in like an ordinary citizen. But she had brought the extraordinary standing of her office to talk about a groundbreaking American institution—legislation known as the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Ever wonder how the ground beneath your favorite national forest trail came to be a place where you and I can take a walk?  Ever wonder how the views and streams at a state park were able to remain places of enchanting beauty? How about the new ballparks and playgrounds in your town?  In many cases, LWCF played a critical role in bringing these projects to fruition.

Enacted by Congress in 1964, LWCF just celebrated its 50th birthday. The idea was simple, and Congress was virtually unanimous. Take a portion of the royalties that were already being earned by the United States government from offshore oil and gas leases in public waters and use them to secure the future of America’s forestland and parkland, as well as the services that they provide to Americans—like recreational opportunity and flood control.

LWCF has made America’s quality of life better. Now LWCF needs help. At 50, it’s on life support. Next year it expires, unless Congress reauthorizes it. Furthermore, Congress has in only one of those 50 years actually left the annual authorized amount of $900 million in the fund. Full LWCF funding can do a world of good. Working with partners in the LWCF Coalition, OSI’s Outdoors America Initiative has provided instrumental leadership for the full-funding and reauthorization campaign.

Conservationists consider Sally Jewell a friend of their cause. Her pace on our hike and eagerness to reach Grassy Ridge—where we could glimpse SAHC’s 600-acre LWCF funding candidate that OSI helped finance with a bridge loan in 2012—told me she was no stranger to the rugged outdoors. But this former REI CEO, who also worked in the banking and oil and gas industries, is also no stranger to business. In explaining why LWCF matters to everyone, she proclaimed from the top of 5,826 foot Round Bald that “there is a reason why REI keeps opening stores in North Carolina.” We were looking at the reason. Experiencing it all around us. 

Reaching across the aisle to join Secretary Jewell on the grassy balds this day was U.S. Senator Richard Burr (Rep.-NC). Senator Burr has been an ardent supporter of LWCF. He has been known to push for more than just what we tend to call “full funding,” noting that $900 million in 1964 dollars would be a lot more dollars today. “Some people say LWCF is just a government play for land, but it’s not,” Senator Burr told our hiking party, “This is the people getting together, finding the places that matter, and finding a way to keep them protected.”

As he said this, the Senator scanned our party. Here was staff from land trusts like SAHC, The Nature Conservancy, and the Open Space Institute. Here was the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Here was lawyer, Mike Leonard, an OSI fund advisor and Chair of The Conservation Fund, who long before that recognition, made an unpaid side career out of his passion for bringing people of all walks of life together to make hundreds of conservation projects happen across the southeast. And here was Fred Stanback, a private citizen whose belief in land conservation and prolific generosity as a donor has time and time again matched public funding, stretching the public’s investment far beyond where it could reach alone.

Here before our eyes was a representation of the people, as Senator Burr had said, who all across this country come together in public-private partnerships to secure, with the help of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the future of the outdoors in America. 

As I drove down the slopes of the Roan and back to Asheville, the places I passed conjured reminders of many special moments from my dozen years of conservation work in this region. Those moments are almost invariably connected with one or another of the ordinary—but in many ways extraordinary—people I’ve had the privilege to meet in this work. They are landowners, national forest and park rangers, donors, nonprofit staff, researchers, and volunteers. We all shared a love for the land. And a common thread that has activated us all, as we’ve sought to secure the future for that land, is the promise and hope embedded in Land and Water Conservation Fund.

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