SAHC: Connecting people, “protecting the stage” through conservation
Travis Bordley, seasonal Roan ecologist with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, loves the idea of land conservation, and that, he said, is what immediately drew him to the SAHC.
“The idea of protecting natural places in an area where development and overpopulation is really subtracting from these wild places that are becoming few and far between, especially on the east coast,” Bordley said. “Conceptually, I just love the idea of putting land into conservation that is safe and protected for us forever. That's incredible.”
The formation of the SAHC dates back to the early 1950s, when the Appalachian Trail Conference decided to reroute 26 miles of road-walking in Tennessee with 72 miles of new trails across the mountains. A hiking club from Kingsport who supported the trail relocation devised a plan to protect the nature of the Roan Highlands and the Southern Appalachians, and in 1974, they formed the nonprofit Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to carry out their vision.
Since its inception in 1974, the SAHC has permanently protected 75,000 acres of unique plant and animal habitat, clean water, farmland, outdoor recreation and scenic beauty in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.
The conservancy’s mission is to “conserve the unique plant and animal habitat, clean water, farmland, scenic beauty, and places for all people to enjoy outdoor recreation in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, enduring for future generations.” They accomplish this in three key ways: protection, stewardship and connection.
Land protection involves protecting a variety of elements of the landscape, including water quality in streams and rivers, habitat for wildlife and rare plants, outdoor recreation locations, farmland for local food production and scenic views. Areas they protect include the Highlands of Roan, the Black Mountains, the French Broad River Valley, the Appalachian Trail Countryside, the Smoky Mountains and the Balsam Mountains.
The three main ways SAHC does protection is through the conservation easements, transfers or assists and preserves.
Conservation easements allow landowners to continue to own and use their land, while voluntarily restricting its development rights to help protect land and water resources, scenic views and connectivity for animals.
“The idea is very similar to that idea of mineral rights, where you have a piece of property and you can kind of separate out different—it's like a bundle of sticks—and you can separate out different parts of the property rights, like you can separate the mineral rights from the physical land itself. So, the idea is that you can separate some of the development rights, the ability to subdivide to a certain degree from the land and then extinguish that.”
Transfers or assists involve helping agency partners meet their goals or buying a piece of land that they hold onto for a short time with the goal of transferring it to a partner to be in public lands permanently.
For preserves, SAHC actually purchases a piece of property permanently, rather than trying to transfer it to the forest services, planning to own it long term. The conservancy utilizes some of these properties as educational sites, in order to connect people with land.
One of these educational sites is the SAHC Community Farm, located just outside Asheville, North Carolina. The 140-acre, working farm houses various conservation projects, including a 25-acre stream restoration project involving the management of over 25,000 native trees and shrubs planted, as well as environmental education and a Shortleaf Pine Reforestation project. They also have a 1.5-mile, educational hiking trail on the property called the Discovery Trail.
As an educational site, the farm provides resources, infrastructure and technical assistance to beginning farmers. They show examples of the sustainable and ecological ways to run a farm, while co-existing with ecosystems, not being detrimental to the soil and plants and still being profitable.
Community Farm Manager Chris Link said helping people conserve and preserve productive farmland is crucial because it leads to healthier land, and as a result, healthier, nutrient-dense local food available for local consumers.
“Specifically here, around the Appalachian Mountains, it always comes back to the reality that only 3% of our land in this area is really prime soil or good growing soil,” said Link. “And so, the statement of, you know, when something's taken out, when something's built on farmland on good soils, that'll never be reclaimed for at least a century, probably a lot more that it could ever even be considered to go back into food production.”
Community Farm Associate Tamarya Sims said educating farmers is really important because science is always evolving, and new information is always coming out.
“I think it just makes it a lot easier to see it happening and seeing that it's doable versus reading it in a scientific article or something,” Sims said. “Like seeing it happen in real time makes it a lot easier for other farmers to believe that it's something they can do.”
Once land is protected, the stewardship element of SAHC’s work takes place, which involves managing and monitoring protected lands, conservation easements and preserves, building and maintaining trails, as well as removing invasive species – all to ensure that areas they have protected will last forever.
“Stewardship is the permanent commitment to uphold and manage conservation lands,” Shepard said. “For land we directly own, we identify each property’s conservation values and strive to best protect those values in accordance with a management plan for each property.
“We do this by developing baselines, monitoring easements, processing permitted use requests, and employing enforcement actions when necessary,” Shepard said.
The stewardship also works to restore and manage the fragile ecosystems of the Highlands of Roan – a landscape that encompasses one of the most scenic areas of the Appalachian Trail and according to Shepard, is considered a global hotspot for ecological biodiversity.
Bordley, who works under the director of Roan stewardship, said they are very active in the Roan, as that's where the organization was initially founded to protect, and as a result, where their roots run the deepest.
“If you were to visit the Appalachian trail as it traverses through the Roan Highlands you couldn't look in any direction without seeing land conservation that we've done in that area,” Bordley said.
The last step of the SAHC’s work is connecting people with land through outreach and advancing opportunities for access for farming and outdoor recreation, with the goal of helping people understand why the protected lands are so important. For outreach, SAHC’s various sites host volunteer days and workshops. While in-person volunteer projects have decreased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conservancy still tries to connect with people virtually videos.
For Bordley, connecting people to land is his favorite part about his job.
“I do a lot of hikes, outings, volunteer workdays,” Bordley said. “And those I find to be the most rewarding, always, is to get people on the ground, looking at conservation in action, because I think that builds the most lasting impact when it comes to teaching people why conserving these wild places is important.”
Sims said that a lot of land trusts and conservation organizations do good work but do not do a lot of community outreach, which makes it difficult for people to understand the work they are doing. She said the great thing about the SAHC community farm is that they put a lot of effort into doing more outreach into the community. The farm has recovery centers that come out to do volunteer work that also serves as a form of therapy and healing. Sims also specifically works with Black and brown youth to get them outdoors and help them feel safe.
“I think as a Black person who grew up in a very different lifestyle, it's hard to know why their work matters,” Sims said. “And so, I put a lot of effort into doing outreach and education in Asheville, and our AmeriCorps member does as well. So, I think that's something that does make us really unique, and I’ve built a lot of relationships that way.”
The SAHC has a multitude of other projects they work on, such as their farmland program aimed toward building relationships with farmers to help protect farmland for future generations, as well as their farmer incubator program, which provides land to initiate or expand agricultural business.
Through all the different projects they do, however, they are always thinking about how their work contributes toward combatting larger issues, such as climate change.
Shepard said an important thing about conservation work and climate change is the connectivity between them. As the climate changes, plant and animal species need the flexibility to be able to move through the landscape and be more resilient. Protecting and conserving those landscapes helps maintain those species.
“So, we talk about like protecting the stage rather than the particular players,” Shepard said. “And that's what conservation is kind of setting out to do is protect the stage for plant and animal species.”
Bordley said climate resiliency play a big role in their land protection model. They are always planning for long-term issues like climate change so they can continue to protect the places that are most susceptible and ensure the longevity of the species that live there.
“I think it's really important for people to understand that land conservation is something that affects everyone,” Bordley said. “Even if you've never heard of a land trust, or you don't know who your local land trust is, when you're out enjoying public land, which belongs to us as American taxpayers, you are enjoying the fruits of land conservation.”
For more information about SAHC, visit https://appalachian.org/, or look for @southernappalachianhighlandsconservancy on Facebook, @appalachian_org on Instagram or @SAHC on Twitter. To learn more about upcoming SAHC events, visit https://appalachian.org/hikes-and-events/.