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Park land around Jeffress Park set to expand

CTNC’s latest acquisition enhances the community resiliency and visitor experience for residents and visitors of Western North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Conservation Trust for North Carolina recently purchased 408 acres of forestland near the intersection of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Highway 421 at Deep Gap. The property adjoins the Parkway between milepost 272 (Cascades Parking Area) and 273.5 near Elk Mountain Overlook, at E.B. Jeffress Park.

This land adjoins the Blue Ridge Parkway along its western and northern boundaries and is located just below Tompkins Knob Overlook, near the Cascades Trail and E.B. Jeffress Park picnic area. It lies along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, with its higher elevations visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway and parts of the popular Cascades hiking trail. It also provides a natural buffer for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway along the northern boundary of the property and the 0.6-mile Tompkins Knob trail to Tompkins Knob Overlook above the property.

This latest acquisition builds on continuing efforts to expand public land around Jeffress Park, named for a native North Carolinian who was instrumental in routing the Blue Ridge Parkway through Western NC. This newly protected property is a key part of CTNC and Blue Ridge Conservancy’s conservation work in this area. Jeffress Park is the largest block of protected land along the 55-mile stretch of Parkway between Moses Cone Park and Doughton Park. Millions of visitors to the Parkway (locals and tourists) will benefit from the expansion of this ‘conservation node’ that’s a popular destination for tourists and locals from Boone, North Wilkesboro, and Winston-Salem.

Expansion of protected land along the Blue Ridge Parkway enhances its importance and effectiveness as a south-to-north habitat migration corridor, enabling plants and animals seeking cooler climates to migrate to northern latitudes. This property also allows species to move upward from the foothills to cooler sites at higher elevations. The permanently protected forests on this property will continue to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Protection of headwater streams will help mitigate the impacts of downstream flooding during heavy rain events.

This conservation achievement was made possible by the generosity of the landowners who donated a portion of land value that reduced the overall purchase cost. This reduction enabled CTNC to purchase the property and secure another win for America’s most popular National Park unit.

We look forward to transferring this property to the National Park Service. With three other nearby and adjoining properties already transferred to the park service by CTNC, and another pending conveyance of 72 acres by Blue Ridge Conservancy, the amount of public land around E.B. Jeffress Park will collectively almost double.

Your donations help us to continue the expansion of protected property in Western North Carolina. Thank you for your continued support of our work as we expand the boundaries of the Blue Ridge Parkway one property at a time.

Landowners participating in the Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project.

Training Future Practitioners to Protect Heirs Property Landowners

As much as 4% of all property in North Carolina is held as heirs’ property, yet only a handful of organizations in North Carolina provide legal services to protect landowners. This land, valued at approximately $2 billion, should be retained by families instead of being lost through forced partition sales.

Thanks to the support of an anonymous donor and the NC Heirs’ Property Coalition, CTNC has pledged $50,000 to fund the new Heirs’ Property Project of the Wake Forest Law Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. Now, families facing heirs’ property difficulties can receive direct legal services from skilled attorneys and law students. Beyond legal help, this project strives to support, train, and provide a framework for other legal practitioners, to help stem the rate of land loss in North Carolina due to forced partition sales.

Through this project, 24 Wake Forest Law students will be trained each year in practical approaches to resolving heirs’ property issues, and to develop two CLEs per year to train practicing attorneys in helping families navigate the realities of communal land ownership and heirs’ ownership.

This project will help folks keep property in their families, resist unwanted development, enhance their farming or forestry practices, and build wealth to weather natural disasters and economic downturn. By addressing heirs’ property, families can create a legal structure for managing their land as a performing asset over the long term.

CTNC has a long history of funding innovative ideas that amplify the impact of conservation in ways that benefit communities across North Carolina. The North Carolina State Legislature has not yet adopted the Uniform Act to provide the necessary due process to protect families from forced partition of land. By designating funding to make this clinic possible, we are able to provide support to families in need so they are able to retain ownership of their land and continue to access the benefits that conservation can provide.

New Frontier For Protecting Heirs’ Property
The project also builds a new node in the network of organizations tackling heirs’ property issues and addressing land loss among African-Americans, Native Americans, and other disadvantaged communities in North Carolina. The Clinic will build capacity for future efforts to resolve heirs’ property in North Carolina, and potentially serve as a model for other law school clinical projects in the Southeast. Organizations working on heirs’ property issues, including the Land Loss Prevention Project, Legal Aid of North Carolina, and Black Family Land Trust, have supported launching a law school clinical project to reinforce their own efforts.

Working with partner organizations, the Heirs’ Property Project will provide direct legal representation alongside conflict resolution and land management support. The Heirs’ Property Project will assist in three ways:

  • By providing direct representation to heirs’ property owners,
  • By building a pipeline of lawyers trained to handle heirs’ property cases, and
  • By serving as a hub for research and interdisciplinary training on land rights issues in North Carolina.

In addition to producing a pipeline of students with training in heirs’ property issues, the project will engage students and scholars in research on land rights’ issues, contributing to practical knowledge about the prevalence, consequences, and social context of heirs’ property—as well as to broader conversations about the economic, social, and political trajectory of rural spaces.

Conversations are underway as to how heirs’ property issues can be included in Wake Forest Law’s curriculum more generally as well. Most importantly, the project will convene expert practitioners to provide training in heirs’ property and related issues to practicing North Carolina attorneys, and to foster an interdisciplinary approach to supporting rural communities as they protect and steward their land. The project will partner with other North Carolina law schools and organizations to help address heirs’ property issues in the state at scale.

The Heirs’ Property Project at Wake Forest will convene a Board of Advisors to provide collaboration and support to students and families. Director of Community Innovation Mary Alice Holley will represent CTNC as a member of the board.

Other coalition members have also pledged to find funding to support this effort over the next two years in addition to our ongoing effort to encourage the NC Legislature to adopt the Uniform Act for NC.

What is Heirs’ Property?
When landowners die without a will, their surviving family members are each left with a fractional interest that lacks many legal protections and privileges. Such land, called “heirs’ property,” is concentrated in communities of color and low-income communities. Owners of heirs’ property face unique difficulty improving their land, stewarding its environmental condition, and securing it against predatory development.

Landowners participating in the Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project.

Holding land as tenants in common and heirs’ property can make the property vulnerable to forced sale. When family members decide they want to sell their share, or a non-family member or developer acquires a share of the property, they may be able to force the partition of the property into smaller pieces, thus fragmenting the land. They may also be able to force the sale of the property without a right of first refusal for other family members or a guarantee of fair market value.

Holding land as heirs’ property can make it difficult or impossible to access credit markets, as clear title cannot be demonstrated. It can also slow or frustrate access to government support for agriculture and/or disaster aid.

Led by a supervising attorney, this project will enroll ten or more students each semester to provide legal services to clients referred from partner organizations. The project will represent heirs’ property owners as they clear title to their land, resolve adjacent legal issues like boundary disputes, and navigate state and federal land management programs—partnering with the Wake Forest Divinity School to provide clients with skilled support for family decision-making processes, as well as with environmental experts to support heirs’ property owners in stewarding their land. Embracing the model of community lawyering, we also expect the project to serve as a legal advisor and first point of contact for local community organizations confronting threats to rural land and community autonomy.

Thank You to Generous Funders
Thanks to donors and supporters, the project launched in January 2023 and is funded through December 2024. Additional thanks to the Skadden Foundation, Wake Forest University’s Provost Office, American Farmland Trust, and Black Family Land Trust for helping make this project a reality.

Contact for Heirs’ Property Legal Assistance
Contact the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic via Jesse Williams for information about the Heirs’ Property Project of the Wake Forest Law Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

Special thanks to Jesse Williams for contributing to this article.

Protecting the Woodfin Creek Headwaters

This past Valentine’s Day, CTNC gave another gift of land to the National Park Service. CTNC donated its 21-acre Woodfin Creek Headwaters property to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The property contains the headwaters of Woodfin Creek and offers scenic views from the Blue Ridge Parkway, the most-visited unit of the National Park Service. It is an example of a successful public-private partnership that benefits all of us who appreciate public lands and the natural beauty of Western North Carolina.

“We are extremely grateful for a generous landowner who was willing to donate property to CTNC to help us achieve our shared goals of permanently protecting the places we all love,” said Rusty Painter, Land Protection Director. “The Woodfin Creek Headwaters property is a shining example of how one person’s generosity can benefit many people, including generations to come.”

The Woodfin Creek Headwaters property is nestled within the Mount Lyn Lowry – Campbell Creek State Natural Area, as designated by the NC Natural Heritage Program. According to the site report prepared by ecologist Owen Carson with Equinox Environmental, globally-significant pockets of spruce-fir forests like those found on this property are characteristic of forest types found as far north as Canada. Mr. Carson’s site report states that the property “contains a wealth of existing conservation values and has the potential to support a considerable number of rare plant and animal species.”

The Woodfin Creek Headwaters is visible when driving south along the Blue Ridge Parkway toward Waterrock Knob. The tourism economy of Western NC is highly dependent on undisturbed views from the Parkway and its hiking trails and other amenities. Most land visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway is still privately owned, with no land use restrictions, leaving it vulnerable to destructive land uses that can compromise the scenic views that attract millions of visitors each year.

This donation furthers CTNC’s mission to deliver conservation that is inclusive, supportive and meaningful conservation for all communities. This area contributes to so many bottom lines that impact North Carolina:

  • Climate Resilience – Expansion of protected land along the Blue Ridge Parkway enhances its importance & effectiveness as a south-to-north habitat migration corridor, enabling plants and animals to migrate to northern latitudes to cooler climates. The permanently protected forests on this property will continue to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Community – Millions of visitors to the Parkway (local and tourists) will benefit from scenic protection. Land conservation around Waterrock Knob has been a multi-partner effort over the past ten years, including local and national land trusts and the National Park Service. Expansion of this ‘conservation node’ enhances recreation opportunities benefiting nearby communities, including the Qualla Boundary, owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
  • Equity – While not accessible by public transportation, the Blue Ridge Parkway is free to all visitors, unlike many national parks that charge user fees.

The property was generously donated by a real estate investor based in Florida in 2017. Donations by supporters like you covered the transaction-related costs of accepting and holding the property until it was donated to the National Park Service. Thank you to all who support our work!

Over 1,000 acres protected by our partners

Protecting North Carolina’s land is a partnership. It takes many organizations coming together to seize opportunities to preserve natural spaces for the health of our state.

One way CTNC facilitates permanent land protection in Western North Carolina is through our Mountain Revolving Loan Fund small grant program. This fund allows land trusts to secure funds for critical, transaction-related expenses that are not always covered by other sources.

This year, CTNC provided six grants to five land trusts totaling over $83,000:

  • Blue Ridge Conservancy
  • Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina
  • Highlands Conservancy
  • Mainspring Conservation Trust
  • Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy

This investment will help protect and manage 1,013 acres of land in Western North Carolina.

The CTNC Mountain Revolving Loan Fund has two significant benefits for our partners:

  1. First, it provides bridge financing with minimal interest to land trusts in Western North Carolina to purchase conservation land and easements. As loans are repaid, the money becomes available to re-lend.
  2. A percentage of the balance of the loan fund is given out each year in grant awards. Grants of up to $25,000 are not required to be paid back.

These grants are made possible by generous CTNC donors Fred and Alice Stanback. Your investments make a lasting impact on communities across our state. Together we are building a more resilient state.

If you are interested in supporting lasting conservation impacts, please contact a member of our team.

Public Lands Day 2022 Honors Efforts to Protect Waterrock Knob, Stewards and Partners

In late September, Conservation Trust for North Carolina (CTNC) joined National Park Service leaders along with representatives from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and numerous partners in land conservation to celebrate the work to protect the Blue Ridge Parkway and Waterrock Knob.

We joined our partners from The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Blue Ridge Conservancy, Conserving Carolina, Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, Piedmont Land Conservancy, Mainspring Conservation Trust, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, and others to celebrate the historic and current stewardship of the important natural and cultural resources along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the generous donors who make it possible.

In 2016, land trust partners announced a large-scale protection effort that would ultimately expand Waterrock Knob conservation area by over 5,300 acres. To date, conservation partners acquired and donated nearly 3,400 acres to the National Park Service. More properties are slated for transfer to the park over the coming months.

The addition of all the new land now enables NPS to prepare a new strategic vision for the greatly expanded Waterrock Knob area. These lands are part of a larger set of 16 separate tracts being donated to NPS by the nonprofit groups thanks to long-term support from major private and public funding sources, including Fred and Alice Stanback and the North Carolina Land and Water Fund. Five of the 16 have already been donated by CTNC, bringing the total number of properties donated to the Blue Ridge Parkway by CTNC to 29, dating back to 1997!

Waterrock Knob is located at milepost 451.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway and features views of a vast landscape of rare Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forests visible from the visitor center and 6,273-foot summit. It is one of the highest visitor centers along the Blue Ridge Parkway and one of the most critically biodiverse landscapes in the Eastern United States. Elk, rare salamanders, flying squirrels, and high-elevation spruce-fir forests all inhabit the area, which is also home to rich Cherokee history.

“Approaching the protection of Waterrock Knob area from a large-scale conservation perspective requires partners and communities to share a recognition that healthy ecosystems, vibrant communities and economies, cultural heritage, and local sense of place are best protected at a landscape level,” said Tracy Swartout, Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent. “The National Park Service is privileged to work alongside our partners in this work, and we look forward to how these lands will enhance and enrich the Blue Ridge Parkway experience for generations to come.”

National Public Lands Day, established in 1994 and held annually on the fourth Saturday in September, celebrates the connection between people and green space in their community, inspires environmental stewardship, and encourages use of open space for education, recreation, and health benefits.

Learn more about this event.

Preventing Involuntary Land Loss: Uniform Act Helps NC Families

In North Carolina, an estimated $1.86 billion of land privately owned in North Carolina is held as heirs’ property. Heirs’ property occurs when land is passed down through generations and owned by many descendants with an undivided interest in the land.

Currently, in our state, anyone who inherits or purchases even a small interest of heirs’ property can potentially force other owners to sell against their will, often for well below fair market value. Owners of family-owned properties are vulnerable to involuntary land loss resulting from forced partition action proceedings.

Right now, a uniform bill is being adopted by state legislators across the Eastern United States. Enacting the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA) in North Carolina will address how current state laws leave landowners of heirs’ property vulnerable to involuntary land loss and provide a path to prevent future loss.

The North Carolina General Assembly is considering adoption of the bill in an effort to safeguard families from forced sales and provide them with greater access to building generational wealth through land equity.

The UPHPA will:

  • give families a solid chance at keeping the land in the family when one or more owners wants to divide or sell the land through a partition action.
  • allow more time for families to make thoughtful decisions about how to sell their land. All members would get the first right of refusal – the contractual right to enter into a business transaction with a person or company before anyone else can.
  • create protections for the family to gain fair market value for their land.
  • reduce the burden of county clerks by providing a standardized procedure to follow when a heirs’ property is up for sale.

Brandon A. Robinson, CTNC Board President, is an estate planning and corporate law attorney practicing in North Carolina. Below, he shares how the Uniform Act and other resources will provide support to families seeking to stop forced sales that result in land loss.

Heirs’ property is a problem that derives largely from either inadequate or nonexistent legally binding documents that clearly state ownership and heirs’ rights. Heirs’ property is created when land is inherited without a clear title or documented legal ownership. While heirs’ property can impact any family when a landowner dies without a will or trust, this problem disproportionately impacts Black and rural families who have historically lacked either the access to high-quality legal services, or a willingness to avail themselves of such services.

Under North Carolina law, just one concurrent owner can initiate a partition proceeding, which usually results in either the physical partition, or the forced sale, of the land, depending on what the Clerk of Superior Court finds to be the most equitable solution. For example, if you are a developer, you can entice just one family heir to sell his/her stake to you and force a sale of the entire property. This happened to a family of color in Raleigh. The family had ownership of a plot of land that was rural Wake County when purchased in the 1940s. Over the years, the property had been rezoned and became more valuable as the capital city sprawled. Unfortunately, the family fell prey to a land developer who bought one heir’s interest for nominal consideration and forced a sale through a partition proceeding. The developer gained title to its initial fractional share for well below fair market value, yet reaped a windfall when the other heirs could not buy out the developer in order to keep their family land; the result was that the developer gained full control of family legacy property that could then be sold or developed for value many times greater than what the developer paid.

If the Uniform Act were to be adopted by the North Carolina General Assembly, the developer would have been preempted in favor of providing family heirs a first right of refusal, and even if a sale did eventually occur through the partition process the family would have a better chance to realize fair market value for the property, based on enforcement tools at the Clerk of Superior Court’s discretion. This would allow all families to have access to clear rules and protections of their land. This offers a way to empower marginalized people who do not have the same access to power and resources to stop a forced sale.

Adopting a Uniform Act Will Give NC Families the Best Path Toward Resolution

Alton Perry, CTNC Board Member, is a Forest Management-Land Retention Consultant with the Roanoke Electric Cooperative. He works with landowners to sustainably manage their property through agriculture, forestry, and revenue generation. Below, he shares how the Uniform Act can be a tool to protect families from forced sales that result in land loss.

The UPHPA intent is to ensure due and equitable process of heirs’ property disputes. Many organizations, attorneys, and community-based organizations offer legal assistance to heirs’ property owners. North Carolina legislators and clerks of court, aided by the process created by the Uniform Act, could offer solutions to families and reduce land lost to forced sales, by referring heirs’ property owners to these resources, therefore reducing the number of cases that would result in a forced partition action.

Heirs’ Property Rights is a problem that cuts across rural and urban divides. All families with multigenerational roots could wrestle with these problems. This legislation brings basic fairness, protection of ownership, and a clear and streamlined process for land ownership and land transfers to our state. This helps all people – white owners, marginalized urban populations, and descendants of enslaved people in the South. This will benefit all of North Carolina.

Ways to get involved.

CTNC views the adoption of the Uniform Act as an integral part of our mission to build resilient and just communities through conservation solutions. Without a clear path to prove or resolve ownership of land, NC families lose the ability to leverage their land for conservation and economic value or to access federal relief funds after disasters.

As a member of the CTNC community, we hope you will stand with us to advocate for smart conservation policies that allow every North Carolinian to benefit from conservation and have the tools to build communities that are resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Read more:

Climate Resilience Leaders – Rusty Painter

Photo of Staff Member Rusty Painter

Rusty Painter’s Master of Environmental Management from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University wasn’t the end of his connection to the school and the future of climate protection. He returns each year to present to classes on a variety of topics, from CTNC’s strategic approach to address climate change and more. “I’m motivated by my son and future generations, from whom we are all ‘borrowing’ this planet.”

His background and his master’s degree in forestry are invaluable as Land Protection Director for CTNC. Rusty joined the CTNC family in 2001. He oversees CTNC’s land protection efforts along the Blue Ridge Parkway and our collaborative partnerships with local land trusts. Recent successes include the preservation of the Florence Boyd Home / Asutsi Trailhead Property, and the Cranberry Creek Expansion project, both of which will be transferred to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Rusty Painter tours the Florence Boyd/Asutsi Trailhead property with Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Swartout, Chloe Ochocki, & Caitlin Markus (L to R).

When did you first realize the real and present impacts of climate change?
The concept of global warming due to the greenhouse effect made sense to me the first time I heard about it, but I guess I really grasped the severity of the problem when Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth came out. What a shame that our political, social and economic systems continued to drive us down this path. Think how much progress could have been made over the last 30 years had we committed to solving the problem back then.

What does climate resilience mean to you?
Adaptation using a combination of evolution and technology – applying our experience, and projections based on sound science to adapt to our changing climate. We must realize that adaptation isn’t the only path forward. Humans must commit themselves to actions that will minimize the need to adapt, or the extent to which we must adapt.

How have you seen climate change impact North Carolina?
One example that I struggle with in my work at CTNC is the expansion of tick habitat. I never used to get ticks while visiting our conservation properties along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but climatic shifts have enabled ticks to colonize areas that were previously too cold, so I’m now getting ticks while out on properties in the mountains. Yuck!

What are actions that organizations in NC can take right now to make our state more resilient?
Conserve energy. Simply using less results in immediate reductions of carbon emissions and has the potential to save far more resources (of all kinds) than our slow, incremental conversion to renewable energy sources. I challenge everyone to consider every action they take throughout the day and do it with half of what they currently use. You’ll find it’s not as difficult as you think. That approach can be applied to most organizations, corporations and government agencies as well. Once ingrained in our psyche, daily routines, organizational procedures, and subsequently, our infrastructure, carbon neutrality on a timeline that will make a difference becomes legitimately achievable.

What’s one thing everyone should know about climate action?
It’s up to all of us to change our mindset and daily routines, but also to support groups doing good work, and electing leaders committed to making the difficult decisions & changes we must make.

Working in climate resilience can be overwhelming. How do you keep going?
I remain optimistic because of the resilience of the human spirit and advancements in technology. Organisms change and adapt…daily, yearly, and over generations. Humans have evolved to the point where we can adapt naturally, like other species, but also use technology to ‘artificially’ adapt. I just hope society is willing to change sooner rather than later, so future generations don’t have to rely on artificial adaptations that will diminish our connection to the natural world.

If you have questions about how CTNC’s land protection enhances climate resilience, contact Rusty to start a conversation.

Climate Resilience Leaders – Mary Alice Holley

Mary Alice Holley’s conservation roots run deep. Her dedication to protecting the land on which we live and play is evident to everyone who meets her.

Mary Alice has been with Conservation Trust for North Carolina since 2016 and currently serves as Director of Community Innovation. In her current role, she works with CTNC’s staff, board, and partners to ensure the organization advances its mission to build resilient, just communities for all North Carolinians.

She has built on a long career in nonprofit communications and public relations. She has been at the forefront in helping change the conversation about climate change from oppositional to encouraging a community effort. Prior to joining the organization, she put her B.A. in mass communications and rhetorical writing from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to work as she supported conservation organizations throughout the state in building smart communication strategies that better connect supporters to their missions.

During her career, she’s worked on a variety of climate change communications campaigns including the Audubon North Carolina Birds and Climate pilot program and served as the Z. Smith Reynolds Conservation and Climate grant program lead on behalf of North Carolina land trusts. Most recently, she developed a climate communication tool kit in partnership with Land Trust Alliance to provide Southeastern United States land trusts with a guide to engaging their supporters on climate change issues locally and regionally.

When not working to protect the planet, she’s hard at work making her own land more resilient by building rain gardens, pollinator habitats, and a vegetable garden on her 1-acre homestead in Orange County, NC. She also finds time to manage a flock of chickens, 2 dogs, honey bees, and an ever-expanding system of raised garden beds.

She’s incredibly passionate about protecting our state’s communities by managing our water. “For North Carolina – climate change is often thought of as a sea-level rise issue – and I believe this challenge reaches far beyond our coastlines. North Carolina is in the top 10% of states in the United States with land situated along coastlines, rivers, and streams. Our ability to protect our communities and maintain our resilience in the future is wholly reliant on our ability to better manage water quantity and water quality challenges. Water issues will impact every North Carolinian across the state and we have the opportunity to come together as one state to find innovative solutions.”

When did you first realize the real and present impacts of climate change?
From a young age, I knew changes were occurring with more frequency and severity. I can remember when my hometown was covered in a foot of snow in the middle of spring, or when the Tennessee River was inundated from storms and our community park was underwater for two weeks before the floods receded. These weather events were not at that time normal or expected – but today they are. It took time for me to study environmental issues and to connect these events to global warming and climate change – but once I could identify the root cause of these events, I began to see my role in identifying and implementing solutions. I felt empowered to think about how my actions could either contribute to climate change or contribute to the effort to create a better outcome. Since then, I’ve committed myself to making decisions for myself, my household, my family, and my community that offer solutions to the climate crisis on small and large scales.

How have you seen climate change impact North Carolina?
North Carolina has nearly 38,000 miles of river in our state. I have been fortunate enough to paddle many of our rivers and even more of our lakes and marshlands. They’re incredibly beautiful and scenic, but our river systems are also critical to the health of human and natural communities. As climate change brings more frequent and severe storms to our state, these rivers will be our first line of defense to hold water and protect communities from the destruction caused by floods. But that will only happen if we bring together experts, policymakers, and funding resources to evaluate how we can better utilize our rivers as assets to face the climate crisis.

In Princeville, residents and community leaders have been dealing with the threat of floods since its founding. Their position along the Tar River has caused extreme challenges for their residents – but that experience as a town that floods has now positioned them as a leader in the effort to find innovative solutions to live with flooding rivers in the face of climate change. They’re marrying the best of science, technology, and conservation to tackle this challenge head-on and their counterparts in more communities across the state are taking notice. Our climate will continue to change and we will continue to feel those effects, but we can’t let the opportunity pass by to change our habits and policies to better equip ourselves for these future realities.

What actions can organizations in NC take right now to make our state more resilient?
A resilient community is one where people are meaningfully engaged and empowered, where leadership is responsive to community needs as defined by its residents, and where its people are able to respond to climate-related disasters by rebuilding or adapting in ways that make them stronger and more prepared for future challenges. What better way for organizations to have an impact than to partner with each other, with funders, elected officials, and local community members with a shared goal to collaborate toward finding and implementing solutions to the climate crisis? We as mission-oriented, community-driven organizations have a responsibility to the people of North Carolina to do whatever we can to increase our resilience because everyone will benefit from this collective effort.

Working in climate resilience can be overwhelming. How do you keep going?
I remind myself that every action I take as an individual has an impact on someone else – so why not channel that energy toward being a climate champion and environmental steward? Within my home, my family are all committed to reducing our climate impact by composting our food waste, reducing our energy consumption where possible, growing food for ourselves and our neighbors, and sharing our passion for conservation and environmental stewardship with others. Professionally, I have dedicated my career to supporting initiatives that have a net-positive effect on the climate crisis whether that be educating North Carolinians on the importance of land conservation as a climate solution or helping other organizations communicate about and celebrate their own climate impact successes.

I find energy from modeling my life in ways that can inspire others. If I am able to wake up every day and know I contributed to a national movement to conserve land in ways that absorb more carbon, protect people from the harm of floods, support climate-smart agriculture and farming practices, and increase the number of people who are committed to taking small actions in their everyday lives – I will have been successful. I believe that people’s actions coupled with smart policies will change the course of our climate future.

Do you want Mary Alice to speak at your next event? Contact Mary Alicemholley@ctnc.org.

Advocating for Smart Conservation Policies

CTNC’s 2022 Policy Agenda

Conservation can provide solutions to many challenges facing our communities. Through innovative conservation strategies, we can build places to hold excess water after storms, protect trees that absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and offer places for people to relax for their mental and physical health.

In 2021, North Carolina legislators voted to spend nearly $200 million to support efforts that will allow our state to become more resilient to climate change. We urge our state leaders to repeat this important investment in our state’s natural resources. Only with smart conservation policies will we successfully build resilient communities that are prepared to weather any storm.

CTNC’s Policy Goals include:

  • Increase public funding for land acquisition, park maintenance, trail construction, and recreation access
  • Empower communities to invest in flood-resilient strategies
  • Prevent involuntary land loss caused by forced partition sales of heirs property
  • Build capacity within communities through AmeriCorps and other service opportunities

These goals will guide our work with policymakers and legislators for the years to come and key outcomes will prepare our state for whatever comes next.

INCREASING FUNDING FOR CONSERVATION
CTNC supports the continued funding of the conservation trust funds as recommended by Land for Tomorrow. We hope to work with members of the General Assembly to increase recurring funding for the state’s conservation trust funds and state agencies. Read more about the legislative priorities set by members of Land for Tomorrow.

As a member of the Great Trails State Coalition, CTNC will continue to work with members of the General Assembly to bring the economic, health, and environmental benefits of trails to North Carolina communities.

Read more about the legislative priorities set by members of the Great Trails State Coalition.

EMPOWERING RESILIENT COMMUNITIES
North Carolina communities need greater investments, increased capacity, and a cadre of service-minded people to be successful in implementing the recommendations of Governor Cooper’s Executive Order 80 and Climate Risk and Resilience Plan. CTNC will advocate for the funding and resources that provide every community with the opportunity to benefit from AmeriCorps service that builds capacity and finds innovative conservation solutions to address the issue of climate change. Learn more about Resilience Corps NC.

Land trusts can lead the way in addressing the impacts of climate change and flood risk. Alongside the Land Trust Alliance, CTNC will promote policies and funding that advance natural climate solutions while supporting the protection, restoration and stewardship of open and working lands that increase climate resilience. Read more about Land Trust Alliance’s policy priorities.

PREVENTING INVOLUNTARY LAND LOSS
Enacting the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA) in North Carolina will address how current state laws leave landowners of heirs’ property vulnerable to involuntary land loss. The UPHPA will help families by giving them a solid chance at keeping the land in the family when one or more owners wants to divide or sell the land through a partition action. Currently, the North Carolina General Assembly is considering adoption of the bill that would safeguard families from forced sales through partition action. Read more about the NC Heirs Property Coalition and our effort to adopt the Uniform Act for NC families and landowners.

It All Starts with Collaboration to Seed Better Outcomes
CTNC is committed to participating in coalitions to find a better future for our state. Our team is active members of Land for Tomorrow, the Great Trails State Coalition, and the NC Heirs Property Coalition, Conservation Trust for NC. These coalitions advocate for smart conservation policies and adequate funding on behalf of our members, community partners, and collaborative projects.

Join Us
As a member of the CTNC community, we hope you will stand with us and advocate for smart conservation policies that allow every North Carolinian to benefit from conservation and get the tools needed to build communities that are resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Princeville Elementary School teachers volunteer during a community planting day.

Seeds of Climate Resilience: FEMA Buyout Program

“Seeds of Climate Resilience” is a blog series to inspire ideas to help our state weather our changing climate. We can protect our families, economies, and the environment. The seeds of change planted today will help communities thrive for generations to come.

All too often, flood-prone communities are dotted with vacated lots that are scraped clean of man-made structures and left for nature to reclaim. These lots are usually deemed prone to future flooding, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has given the landowners a path to sell their property and move away from the potential of repeated flooding.

What are FEMA buyouts?
Buyouts are the primary federal program designed to increase disaster resiliency.

After a presidentially-declared disaster, local officials may decide to request money from the state to purchase properties that have either flooded or been substantially damaged. The state chooses to offer buyouts using FEMA’s money through its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to reduce future disaster losses.

Buyouts are voluntary, and no one is required to sell their property. As part of the federal buyout program, the area is deed restricted and cannot be developed with permanent structures in the future. Existing properties and structures are demolished, cleared, and permanently maintained as green space by the local government.

The voluntary buyout program gives property owners the option to sell their property and move away from the potential of repeated flooding while reducing property damages and expenses incurred from flooding. The flood buyout program can be an extremely useful tool for communities recovering from a natural disaster.

How does it help lessen climate change?
As our climate changes, communities are experiencing more frequent and severe rainfall as well as greater swings between rains and drought. Creating permeable spaces designed to capture water benefits people, plants, and wildlife.

Once homes are bought, the land is vacated and development rights removed. This provides communities with an opportunity to restore the land to a natural space that can be designed to store water and be flooded again while keeping future residents out of harm’s way.
North Carolina relies on FEMA-funded buyouts to create more open space and reduce future disaster risks.

What if these abandoned spaces were given new life through conservation work?
Land where buyouts occur is eventually deeded over to the town or other local government agency. The rules say that such lots can never be built on again. Too often they remain vacant and are seen as a blight to the remaining community members. But there are other options.

Organizations and local governments can sometimes turn these buyout lots into community use spaces. While these spaces are not safe for human habitation or businesses, with a little imagination, they can be transformed into spaces that support a thriving community. Communities where voluntary buyouts have occurred then have an opportunity to convert that land to a conservation use like a public park, managed wetland, community garden, or other non-permanent use.

North Carolina Success Story: Princeville
Finding effective land uses for FEMA buyout properties is a cornerstone in Princeville’s flood mitigation strategy.

In a project funded by an EJ4Climate: Environmental Justice and Climate Resilience grant from the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation and EPA, CTNC will work with the Town of Princeville to convert vacant and underutilized parcels to conservation benefits, including managed wetlands and a model community garden. This new grant program addresses environmental inequality and promotes community-level innovation and climate adaptation. The leaders and residents of Princeville hope this will become a replicable model that flood-prone communities across North Carolina will implement to protect their residents from the damage caused by severe flood and rain events.

In 2021, the NC General Assembly included over $200 million in the state budget to fund resilience projects that will aid communities in addressing flooding and building resiliency through conservation solutions.

How can citizens help determine how vacant land created from buyouts could be used or maintained?
Advocate with your local elected officials for shared community green space and conservation projects on vacant and underutilized land owned by your city, town or municipality. Where possible, a local land trust or conservation organization may offer programs to support this effort.

Over the past 20 years, The Land Conservancy of New Jersey has worked with communities impacted by ongoing, damaging storms. In many of these municipalities, FEMA cannot provide the relief residents need to leave their properties and settle elsewhere. The Land Conservancy office worked with these towns, the State of New Jersey, and homeowners to purchase more than 200 homes and convert the land to open space. Restoring the land to its natural condition provides additional capacity to hold stormwater, offers safety to residents, reduces further loss of property, and saves the lives of emergency responders who continue to put themselves in harm’s way during these dangerous situations. It creates a park where none existed before and answered a community’s needs to reduce the harmful and serious effects of repetitive, overwhelming storms in some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Learn more about CTNC’s efforts to conserve land in watersheds as a climate mitigation tool protecting NC communities.

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