Asheville Citizen-Times Jan. 17, 2004

There are numerous lessons we can digest from the Needmore tracts conservation success story

By: Katherine Skinner, SPECIAL TO CITIZEN-TIMES

One lesson The Nature Conservancy has learned over the years is that progress comes faster and the results are more significant when capable partners work together toward a common goal. Like canoeing across a lake, one paddle might get you there, but two will certainly make the task easier.

This thought comes to mind as I reflect upon the decades- long effort to protect one of the most important biological places in North Carolina, the Needmore tracts along the Little Tennessee River. By the time the sun set on the Little Tennessee River this past Thursday night, these 13 tracts, composing nearly 4,500 acres, were permanently protected as the result of the diligent work of many capable partners.

But partnership was just one of the key lessons from the Needmore efforts that helped make it a conservation success story. There were several other important lessons to remember from this effort if we are to be successful in future endeavors to protect other wild areas in Western North Carolina.

Good science provides us a road map

It may be heresy to hear a conservationist admit that not all natural areas have the same value. But they don't. Whether we like to admit it or not, neither the private nor public sector have the resources to protect all of the important natural areas currently up for sale in Western North Carolina. We didn't in the past, we don't now, and we likely won't in the future. As a result, we must use our limited resources as efficiently and effectively as possible, especially as land prices in the mountains continue to skyrocket.

Good science allows us to identify those places in Western North Carolina where unique populations of species are under the greatest threat, and helps us to focus our resources. Scientists have proven that to be effective over the long run, we must work across larger areas, often entire landscapes. In Western North Carolina, The Nature Conservancy's team of scientists has worked along with those employed by state and federal agencies and other conservation groups to identify its current highest priorities: the Little Tennessee River landscape; the Blue Ridge Escarpment, especially Hickory Nut Gorge near Lake Lure, and the New River headwaters landscape in Ashe and Watauga counties near Boone.

In each of these areas our scientists are emphatic that the likelihood of a species to survive and reproduce is greatly enhanced if it has large expansive areas of protected habitat instead of small, isolated sanctuaries. This underscores the importance of building corridors and linkages between existing protected areas with high biological value such as state parks and national forests and working in collaboration with private landowners with large tracts of undeveloped land.

Science is also helping us identify the greatest threats to these natural areas, whether they are invasive weeds or conversion of agricultural land to other uses, and develop specific strategies to effectively address those threats.

Along the Little Tennessee River, teams of scientists documented populations of rare and endangered species, particularly mussels and amphibians. Few places in the Southeast United States compare to the biological diversity found there. This information caught the attention of officials with the state of North Carolina and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who committed their resources to protect the property right from the start, inspiring others to do the same.

Conservation strategies won't work without local input

Long-term conservation of a natural area is rarely successful without the active involvement and buy-in of adjacent landowners, local communities and groups that have traditionally used the resource. Conservationists are wise to engage early on these groups in an honest discussion about their economic and recreational interests and look for strategies that take those interests into account when they devise a protection plan.

The previous owners of the Needmore tracts, Crescent Resources, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, had a number of options available to them for disposing of the Needmore property, some of which would not have included conservation. Building trust with a partner like Crescent Resources enabled The Nature Conservancy and others to launch a community visioning effort in which the citizens of Macon and Swain County, through a series of public forums and one-on-one meetings, were able to express their hopes and desires for the property. Those ideas helped guide the conservancy's protection strategy for all of the Needmore property. This strategy incorporates the local desire to see fishing, hunting, paddling and hiking continue to occur on the property as it has for generations.

Many local leaders worked tirelessly during this process to assist the conservation community in examining all of the options available for the Needmore property and weighing the long-term impact the various uses of the property would have on the local economy and its residents. They are the unsung heroes of this effort.

Identify and work with capable partners

No single organization, government agency or individual can honestly take sole responsibility for the protection of the Needmore properties. It was a team effort from the beginning with various groups playing important roles to reach agreement on the complicated real estate transaction with Crescent Resources, to build and maintain community support and to diligently work at raising the $19.6 million from public and private sources to complete the project.

In my two decades in conservation in North Carolina, real estate transactions have become increasingly complicated, especially when the private and the public sector work together. Needmore involved no less than two state agencies, three state trust funds, a federal agency, two county governments, three conservation groups and others. Projects like Needmore require many of us to check our egos at the door and work collaboratively for a greater cause. That is not always something easy for organizations and agencies to do, but is absolutely essential to success.

The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, The Conservation Fund, The Nantahala Outdoor Center, North Carolina's Wildlife Resources Commission, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the Natural Heritage Trust Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services were among the many groups that contributed in small and large ways to Needmore's success. All deserve a share of the credit.

The result of good science, community involvement and collaboration was a tremendous outpouring of support from across North Carolina. Teachers, businessmen, hunters, students and others sent contributions to this effort, knowing that their contributions of between $1 and $1 million would help keep the Needmore property forever wild.

Protection of Needmore is cause for celebration. It is also a reminder to all of us who live in an area so blessed in its natural bounty that there is a lot more to do. As we go about that task, it is important to reflect on what contributed to today's celebration and remember those lessons as we embark on future efforts to protect our state's natural treasures.

Katherine Skinner is executive director of the North Carolina Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which has offices at 545 Merrimon Avenue in Asheville. For more information about the conservancy's work in Western North Carolina, go to www.nature.org\northcarolina or call (828) 350-1431.