Blue Ridge Forever
Blue Ridge Forever
- Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Asheville, NC
- Conservation Trust for North Carolina, Raleigh, NC
- Blue Ridge Conservancy, West Jefferson, NC
- Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, Hendersonville, NC
- Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Highlands, NC
- Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, Morganton, NC
- Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, Franklin, NC
- Pacolet Area Conservancy, Tryon, NC
- National Committee for the New River, West Jefferson, NC
Please note that all data below was derived from the collaboration's nomination for the Collaboration Prize. None of the submitted data were independently verified for accuracy.
The grant applicant, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy serves as Blue Ridge Forever’s (BRF) fiscal agent. Land conservancies/trusts work in local communities to ensure critical lands are protected for clean water, wildlife habitats and farming by assisting willing landowners to permanently protect their land from development through outright sale or donation/sale of development rights (“conservation easement”). Once land is placed under easement, land trusts annually monitor it in perpetuity. In 2003 land trusts in Western North Carolina (WNC) identified the need to collaborate to advance conservation of a region representing North America’s biologically richest temperate forest, containing numerous globally significant sites and species. Before forming BRF members competed for projects and resources, occasionally unknowingly working on the same property. With some already partnering on a few high profile projects, seven land trusts began to strategize on how to minimize duplication, achieve protection on a landscape scale in a time of unprecedented population and development growth, and tap into funding sources that were unavailable to any one land trust. Soon they invited the national conservation organizations and smaller land trusts to join the discussion agreeing that imminent threats to this American treasure required their synergy.
BRF became official in 2004 when it secured funds to hire a coordinator and develop a case statement. By 2006 every conservation organization serving this 25-county, 10K-sq.-mile area had joined the coalition. Today there are 9 local land trusts plus 3 national, advisory conservation organizations. Rather than incorporate a new organization and create unnecessary bureaucracy, BRF compensates a coalition member for serving as the fiscal agent with 10% of each coalition grant. To date we have raised $2.1 million, 57% of which has been or will be distributed directly to members. BRF meets regularly and works through four committees. Advised by the committees, the Steering Committee approves major decisions. The coordinator and campaign director (hired 2007) facilitate regular communications, seek and administer grants and develop PR activities reflecting collective accomplishments.
PUBLIC CONFUSION—Even our members’ best donors were confounded by the roles of all the conservancies and perceived that there was unnecessary duplication. Our collective Conservation Vision, 50K-acre campaign, and PR activities have diminished this confusion. FEAR OF BRAND—Some members feared going public at all. Using members as spokespeople for BRF reinforced the notion of an umbrella for WNC land trusts vs. another land trust. Carefully conceived public relations efforts built trust that our brand would not obscure those of members, especially a 31-week series about our Vision on the local ABC TV affiliate. GEOGRAPHIC SCOPE—Early on some members sought a focus on all the states they served. We instead restricted the Vision and campaign to WNC with the option to expand in the future. CAPITAL CAMPAIGN—Before the recession settled the question, we were divided on whether to mount a traditional major donor campaign and conducted a feasibility study. DECISION-MAKING—Consensus is the goal but members may opt out of programs that the majority approves. For example, some members declined to accept gifts from parties who may be perceived to have conflicting interests (e.g. developers) and two opted not to participate in our campaign feasibility study. FEAR OF DONOR FLIGHT—These fears proved unfounded due to members’ strong donor relationships and the director’s policy of referring contacts to their local land trust. FOUNDATION BLACKOUT PERIOD—Members were asked not to apply to foundations that had made grants to the coalition. Collective grants brought new funding to some members, but reduced funding to others who had previously received larger grants from these grantors. The latter now consider the coalition a net gain. FUND ALLOCATION—We allocate grants under $10K equally but pro-rate larger grants after approval by a Steering Committee vote. TIME DEMAND—Committees, teleconferences, email voting, and well-planned meetings reduce travel and meeting time; an Executive Committee expedites decision-making; and monthly email updates keep all informed.
PROJECT COLLABORATION—Planning for the Conservation Vision resulted in 28 priority areas, vastly improved transparency, informed strategies to create wildlife corridors, and fostered collective problem solving and joint project efforts. Now some members are in discussions to relinquish some of their geographic and program priorities to reduce duplication. BRF will celebrate achieving a five-year, 50K-acre campaign goal this fall thanks to private, public and land value donations totaling more than $317M! Members increasingly alert colleagues to new projects and refer requests, resulting in 330 closings averaging 1.5/week over the campaign’s 1st four years. FINANCIAL EFFICIENCIES—Some members share office space and contract for one another’s staff services. Partly due to campaign feasibility study feedback, two members merged after three previous failed attempts. MARKETING—Our BRF brochure, Vision, and website provide a platform to reach a regional audience. STAFF DEVELOPMENT—BRF provides a venue for intra-member mentoring, resulting in more innovation. For example, BRF hosted a year of coaching to improve members’ skills in attracting estate gifts. Also, when the Land Trust Alliance (our national umbrella organization) introduced the first land trust accreditation program, BRF hosted sharing sessions to help prepare member staff to apply. Now three are accredited and the others soon will be. REGIONAL VOICE—Members have strengthened their impact and save time by speaking with one voice to elected officials and public agencies. Likewise, external organizations have an efficient communications conduit to the region’s conservationists.
Numerous budding coalitions across the country have requested materials and advice summarized here. CONSERVATION VISION—BRF worked with six public agencies to develop a collective Vision to prioritize focus areas based on rigorous selection criteria. It is the basis for our communications and campaign. SOLID FOUNDATION—In 2005 members worked democratically with the help of a consultant to prepare an MOU articulating our purpose and goals to increase: public awareness, financial support, and member capacity. Then they structured our administration (staffing, governance, decision-making, and fund distribution) and formulated a strategic plan. FUNDING & STAFFING—Members recognized a coalition has operating costs and raised funds to hire staff to coordinate the effort and fundraise for the future. The coalition outlined clear accountability for staff, requiring them to report to the Steering Committee chair. As needs have arisen, members have volunteered necessary resources.
Land trusts work in local communities to ensure critical lands are protected for clean water, wildlife habitats and farming by assisting willing landowners to permanently protect their land from development through outright sale or donation/sale of development rights (“conservation easement”). The nine land trusts that comprise our coalition vary widely in size and scope; from two-person staffs working in a single county to eight-person staffs working in four states, but all are working to protect the most biologically diverse temperate forest in North America.
The Southern Blue Ridge region is home to more than 400 rare plants and 250 species that occur nowhere else in the world. Headwater streams located in the mountains are the source of drinking water for millions in the Southeast. And, the land provides livelihood for foresters and farmers, with 13,000 active farms in our 25 counties.
In 2003, development was rampant with predictions that the population in North Carolina would increase by 50% from 2000 to 2030. At this point several land trusts in Western North Carolina identified the need for collaboration to 1) minimize duplication and enhance standards and practices individually and collectively; 2) better achieve land protection in a time of unprecedented population and development growth; 3) increase funding at a national level and tap into funding resources that were unapproachable by any one land trust alone; and 4) better meet the expectations of foundations, several of which encouraged collaboration to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
We have strived to fulfill these objectives through the following:
Through the creation of our joint Conservation Vision for North Carolina, the coalition identified key characteristics for lands in urgent need of protection. Twenty-one of our 28 focus areas have more than one land trust working in that area. In the past this led to land trusts competing for projects and doubling up on efforts. However, through their involvement in the coalition and the creation of the Vision land trusts identify opportunities for working together or refer a landowner to another land trust.
One example is the 1800-acre Pond Mountain acquisition located in Ashe County where the landowners wished to protect the land, but had 600 acres in production of Christmas trees, employing more than 80 full-time staff. The state Wildlife Resources Commission agreed to buy the large tract to make into state game-lands. Due to the size, complexity, and cost (approx. $14 million) of the project three Blue Ridge Forever land trusts worked together on this project; Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust, High Country Conservancy and National Committee for the New River. They negotiated with the Wildlife Resources Commission to purchase the land while leasing a portion of the land back to the landowner to continue Christmas tree production and the employment of their entire staff – a critical economic support in this rural area.
Another example was the protection of Chimney Rock, a popular tourist attraction in Western North Carolina for decades as well as serving as home to numerous rare and endangered species. When the owners expressed an interest in selling the property, land trusts were quick to act. Two Blue Ridge Forever land trusts, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, worked with two of the coalition’s national advisors, The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, to facilitate the state’s acquisition of the property to create Chimney Rock State Park. They continue to work effectively together to add adjacent lands to the park.
During the course of the coalition, opportunities for the land trusts to share staff, office space and other resources have developed organically. For example:
• In 2010 two of our land trust members, Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust and High Country Conservancy, merged to form Blue Ridge Conservancy. They had attempted merger three previous times, but were motivated to try again in part by results of the coalition’s 2009 capital campaign feasibility study.
• For the past six years, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy has administered the AmeriCorps Project Conserve program. This federally backed program provides more than 20 highly skilled AmeriCorps volunteers to the land trusts and other conservation organizations across Western North Carolina for a fraction of the expense of hiring full-time staff.
• Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust contracted with National Committee for the New River for mapping services, while Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust contracts with Land Trust for the Little Tennessee to create their very technical baseline reports.
• Land trust staff regularly contact each other for advice on issues such as conservation easement language, referrals for consultants, and technical issues.
Only one of our nine land trust partners has a dedicated staff person for public relations. Blue Ridge Forever staff has worked to supplement the media exposure for the land trusts and provide them with public relations staff support.
Since 2007 the coalition has generated more than 100 news stories for the coalition members. We have sought opportunities that individual land trusts would not be able to access alone creating an efficiency of scale.
• In 2008 Blue Ridge Forever worked with the local ABC affiliate to create a 31-part series on our joint Conservation Vision. The series generated more than $93,000 worth of airtime for the land trusts.
• In 2009, Blue Ridge Forever purchased 379, 15-second spots on three NC public radio stations educating the public about the land trusts and their use of the State Wildlife Action Plan.
• Since 2007, Blue Ridge Forever has joined with the public radio station based out of Asheville, WCQS, for four of the station’s membership drives. One or more donors provide a matching gift that the coalition receives if listeners pledge to WCQS. Over a three- to five-hour period, WCQS announcers talk with the land trust spokespeople about the importance of land protection during the pledge breaks.
A series of peer-to-peer training opportunities provide incredible benefits to the conservation staff. When the national umbrella organization, the Land Trust Alliance, was developing accreditation standards in 2006, the coalition hosted a series of sharing sessions to help prepare members to apply. Now six of the coalition members are either accredited or have applied, far above the national average.
After a hiatus from the peer-to-peer trainings to work on the joint Conservation Vision, the Conservation Committee asked to resume the trainings, aiming to hold two a year. Thus far they have had training sessions/discussions on GIS technology and techniques, tools for conservation planning, conservation tax credits, easement violations, and reserved rights, all of which were well attended.
Peer-to-peer sharing has also improved amongst the development staff at the land trusts. In September 2008, the coalition hired a consultant to provide a 10-part training series on planned giving. As part of the training the land trusts shared their knowledge and experience with obtaining and managing planned gifts.
These peer-to-peer trainings are free and many find them more relevant than costly national trainings.
Blue Ridge Forever has helped create a regional voice for the land trusts, dispelling the perception of isolationism and competition between the land trusts. Through the Conservation Vision, joint messaging, and agreed-upon policy positions the land trusts have been able to have greater influence with decision makers and donors.
These efforts have led to the protection of 50,000 acres in Western North Carolina during the course of our five-year campaign. These aren’t just any acres, but are the places most significant to protecting clean drinking water, plant and animal habitat, farming, and tourism and recreation in our mountains. They are vital to the health of the residents and the economy in our region.
In the early part of 2000, real estate developers were outpacing individual land trusts’ ability to evaluate land acquisition priorities, purchase options and complete land protection transactions. In one instance, High Country Conservancy was about to sign an option-to-purchase agreement on an 800-acre tract when a developer flew in on a private jet with cash in hand and purchased the tract instead.
Experiences like this one highlighted serious shortcomings in the ability of individual land trusts to cope with these new conditions.
• The job of safeguarding our landscape is too large for any one organization to accomplish alone.
• Individual land trusts often cannot move with the speed needed to offset the forces of rapid development.
• Real estate developers are outpacing individual land trusts’ capacity to evaluate land acquisition priorities, purchase options and complete land protection transactions.
• Land trusts do not have enough money to fund acquisitions as opportunities pour onto the market.
• Important conservation opportunities are lost as our forests, watersheds and farms are subdivided and sold for development.
After the land trusts identified the need for collaboration in 2003, it became official in 2004 when the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation awarded the “Blue Ridge Partnership” a $30,000 grant to develop a collective case statement. At the end of the year, the partners employed the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy’s AmeriCorps Public Outreach member to compile project information and photographs, conduct research, create focus maps, and write the case for support. During that year, the Partners also created a draft regional map highlighting each of the partners’ key conservation focus areas.
Over time all 10 land trusts and three national land conservation organizations serving WNC joined the coalition in order to present a united front in protecting the Southern Blue Ridge Mountain ecosystem.
In 2005, the Partners employed a consultant to discuss a collective fundraising strategy and prepare for a Memorandum of Understanding (attached). The MOU, signed in November 2005, articulates the coalition’s purpose, goals, and qualifications and expectations for ongoing participation, as well as administration including staffing, governance, decision-making, committee structure, meeting schedules, additional coalition activities, record-keeping, membership levels, distribution of funds, and MOU amendment procedures. With the help of the consultant, the coalition also developed a strategic plan in 2006.
A campaign director was hired in January 2007. The director and coordinator facilitate the group’s activities by establishing regular communications, organizing committee and full coalition meetings, seeking and administering coalition grants, and developing joint public relations materials that reflect the collective accomplishments of the coalition members.
The coalition has meets regularly and works through committees: Conservation, Public Relations, Fundraising, and Steering. The Steering Committee is responsible for approving major items based on the recommendations of the other committees. This structure gives the land trusts full control of the direction that the coalition takes. Decisions are made by a two-thirds majority.
Many of the projects that the coalition embarks on are designed to allow individual land trusts to opt out if it is not a good fit for their organization. For example, in 2009 the coalition received an Environmental Enhancement Grant from the Department of Justice. Though not all the land trusts had projects that were applicable for this grant, the coalition moved forward with the grant proposal because it would support the coalition’s joint Conservation Vision.
The coalition staff constantly strives to streamline communications to the steering committee through monthly updates and individual phone calls, as well as managing in-person and telephone meetings in an effort to avoid overburdening busy land trust staff.
The challenges faced by the coalition are noted in section F of our application.
The 50,000-acre achievement and the celebration associated with it are emblematic of what the coalition has been able to accomplish. The coalition has vastly exceeded its original goals of enhancing cooperation and communication among Western North Carolina (WNC) land trusts. Additionally, the coalition has: 1) created a Conservation Vision for Western North Carolina that unifies the land trusts through long-term, landscape-scale conservation goals; 2) raised more than $1.2 million in pass-through grants to support land protection and organizational development; 3) increased public awareness of the urgent need for land protection; and 4) served as a model for other coalitions across the country.
As the coalition approached 2010 – which would be highlighted by the completion of our 50,000-acre campaign and a tough economic climate for fundraising for the coalition and its land trusts – the partners posed the question whether to continue the coalition efforts. The response was a resounding yes!
The land trusts have found the coalition so valuable that each member made a $2,000 financial commitment toward the coalition’s general operating budget in 2010. Additionally, two members already have pledged up to $2,000 in 2011 to support the coalition and several others are considering doing the same.
After six years of collaboration, the main challenge for land conservation has changed from keeping up with the pace of development to the declining availability of funds for land protection, but the need for collaboration is stronger than ever. Land trusts are being asked to do more with less and by working collaboratively we are able to do just that.