Dirty Jobs: Land Conservation and Environmental Management

My time at Catawba Lands Conservancy and Carolina Thread Trail has been split in many different directions, doing many different types of work, and working with all types of people. You can really learn a lot about the society we live in behind stands of pines and hardwoods, in the riparian lands along our creeks and rivers. Last week I went on a site visit to a Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) property (I won’t specify the exact location so all landowners may remain anonymous). This conserved land is separated by just a few parcels, and as many landowners from our most popular natural surface trail in the Carolina Thread Trail (CTT) network. To make this connection, would add about two miles onto our existing trail, and is a very tangible goal depending on landowner cooperation. That being said, I and two others went to the site to walk the corridor and assess trail possibilities. What we were met with was both exciting and discouraging.

Our walk started off through a managed forest of loblolly pines, which make for a great trail because of the relatively clean understory and forest floor, and then shifted down to the creek bank where the walking got a bit more laborious, but still had great potential for a trail. The creek wandered through the forest, large native pines and hardwoods on the east bank, and an intimidating wall of invasive privet on the west. Eventually the forest gave way to a wide, beautiful wetland area fed by a creek (name undisclosed) and the flood waters of the lake (name undisclosed). This area was quite pleasant this time of year, but would be a breeding ground for mosquitoes in warmer weather. The wetland area would require a series of bridges or boardwalks to implement a sustainable trail (although bridges and boardwalks would be a nice amenity for users, it can be a very expensive obstacle for us). Back into the woods we went for a short distance until we reached an untouched pool of the lake. This water body encompassed about ten acres, but was only about two feet deep and littered with trees, fallen branches, and exposed islands of grasses—a heaven on earth for wood ducks and other waterfowl. As we approached, sure enough, we bumped up a pair of wood ducks, a blue heron, and three Canadian geese. This was a beautiful sight, and rare to see on a commercialized lake such as this one. Our admiration, unfortunately, soon turned to dismay as we made our way around the water and saw the disgusting scene on the other side.

As we circumvented the pond, we came upon a litter pile of glass and plastic bottles, plastic toys, beer cans, tires, Styrofoam, and old household appliances. This was the largest and most dense litter pile I have ever seen in an undeveloped area. It was amazing amount of trash, and we soon came to realize that to make a trail a reality in this area we would need to have multiple volunteer workdays with many hands working diligently for hours, filling several dump truck loads of trash for removal. Trash pickup is not the most glamorous work in land management, but one that is necessary in many cases. This is one of the “dirty jobs” in land conservation work, and frankly, a job that can be over-looked or brushed under the rug because of the limited resources in small land trusts and other environmental organizations like ourselves.

As a conservationist, this is extremely frustrating to see. Trash is a serious problem in our society and a major concern for the environment through its impacts on wildlife, water quality, etc. Action needs to be taken on this front, and I’m not exactly sure what that will look like. Is it local, state, or federal policy changes? Or is it an effort made through corporate responsibility initiatives from companies producing these products, maybe an effort at the grassroots level? I’m not sure, but if something isn’t done about this soon, the increasing global population combined with the societal obsession with on-the-go products, fast food, and plastic products will be the demise of our natural environment as we know it today.

Seeing is believing. It is hard to wrap the human brain around something of this magnitude from anecdotes and photos, so it is important for organizations like us to get people outside and facilitate this conversation. But remember, non-profit environmental organizations love volunteers and would fall apart without them. So please look into spending some time researching and finding places to get involved in the conservation efforts wherever that may be.

Introduction to Non-Profit Environmental Conservation Efforts in a Diverse and Developing Region

I am currently working for Catawba Lands Conservancy and Carolina Thread Trail in Charlotte, NC. Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) is a local not-for-profit land trust dedicated to preserving land to protect water quality, wildlife habitat, and farmland. The final tier to the Conservancy’s mission is to connect lives to nature in the Charlotte region, and this is where the Carolina Thread Trail (CTT) project comes into play. CTT, a separate 501 (c)(3) organization with CLC as its lead agency, is dedicated to weaving communities together through a regional greenway and blueway network. While we are two separate organizations, there is little to be seen of this outside of formal documentation. We share staff, resources, office space, ideas, passion, dedication, and excitement every day.

My fellowship has been splitting time between CLC and CTT: monitoring conservation easements and preserves, performing forest and trail stewardship duties, leading volunteer workdays, organizing three Regional Round Table discussions around trail development, and much more. I have been in the Davidson Impact Fellows program for almost eight months now, and my understanding and outlook on non-profit work, career development, environmental conservation, community intricacies, and personal goals have been sculpted by the ebb and flow of my fellowship. I spend much of my time working with our Community Coordinator, visiting government officials, trail implementation partners, advocates, and adversaries to discuss trail opportunities and issues. This has exposed me to many things that are impossible to emulate in an academic setting. The diversity of our 15-county region has challenged me in many ways and introduced me to the subjective aspects of environmental conservation across the globe.

Struggles are plentiful in our daily work, only to be masked by the few great successes that make all of our efforts seem worth it. Months of headaches and creative problem solving only to conserve a small tract of riparian land, or to implement one mile of natural surface trail, seems a bit disproportionate, and admittedly can be frustrating at times. I’ve asked myself if all of this is even worth it. The answer is yes. Being in the workplace every day with a passionate group of people has allowed me to gain an understanding that our work is vital to land conservation and appreciate the efforts of our counterparts elsewhere. Months ago my answer may have been different. Without overarching support it is sometimes hard to see the good you are doing; however, many battles won around the world can amount to a big victory for the common goal. This position has allowed me to develop in ways that I could have never imagined. Yes, I am gaining technical knowledge of trail development and environmental conservation, but there is more than just that. My fellowship is allowing me to become comfortable in the workplace, participate in real-world land conservation deals in a predominately conservative part of the country, develop my own opinions on how I can make a difference through an environmental career, and gain an appreciation for the work that is being done by organizations just like us all around the world.

I have recently been admitted one of the most prestigious environmental management and forestry programs in the country, and I have this fellowship to thank for it. The Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University seeks to develop global environmental leaders through their Master of Environmental Management and Master of Forestry programs. A year ago, this task seemed very intimidating and frankly impossible for me. My time at CLC and CTT has allowed me to gain confidence in my knowledge, capabilities, and ambitions because I feel like I have been able to have the experiences of an environmental conservationist of 5 years. Yes, many times I have been completely lost in a conversation or overwhelmed by the complexities of a project, but simply having those experiences has motivated me to be more persistent in my education and career development. Without this fellowship, I would not know what I wanted my next steps to be for graduate school or for starting a career.

My main focus project at the Conservancy and Thread Trail is to help develop and organize annual “Trail Round Tables” for our implementation partners around the region. We will host three of these in the upcoming year, where we divide our region into three sections and focus on issues in a more localized manner. I have been working very closely with our Community Coordinator and Outreach Coordinator to organize these three events and our first Trail Round Table will be on March 16. This is a pilot event for CTT, but we are hoping to integrate it into our annual regime of Thread Trail gatherings. Our staff and I hope that these Trail Round Tables will be another touch point with our partners who are in the trenches of trail development and will be a catalyst for progress on our active projects in the respective areas. More to come on this later, but hopefully this will be a successful addition to our normal practice, and something that can grow through, and alongside the Davidson Impact Fellowship at Catawba Lands Conservancy and Carolina Thread Trail.

Writing Post-Davidson

At Davidson, I wrote a lot. Almost every student does. Juggling research papers, journal reflections, essays, and daily homework is undeniably integral to the Liberal Arts experience. In my Davidson Impact Fellowship with the Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) and the Carolina Thread Trail, I have begun to harness the skills I developed at Davidson and apply them to the chaotic process that is grant writing.

Unsurprisingly, writing grants is a little different from writing that essay I wrote on the metaphorical significance of Lorca’s Yerma and my research paper on the adverse health effects of exposure to the pesticide, 1,2-Dibromo-3-chloropropane. There are no grades with grants, and no opportunity to turn in a revised draft. I know grant writing is more of a pass/fail system, but I still cannot help to expect my grant application returned—diligently marked with feedback, raising one more question to investigate and requiring just a few more hours of work.

Grant writing, in its more frustrating moments, is the mundane process of searching for tax emption status forms and modifying the same paragraph for the thousandth time to satisfy the comically short word count restriction. At its best though, it is the opportunity to tell the story of how your organization (and its proposed projects) are going to make the world a better place. For that reason, I love grant writing. It is like an exercise in proving to your readers and to yourself that your organization is outstanding and worthy of investment.

Thus far, I have helped the Catawba Lands Conservancy and Carolina Thread Trail with grants on projects ranging from invasive species control to constructing a 10-mile paddle trail segment along the Rocky River. Regardless of the topic, each grant is an opportunity to be thankful for the work that the organization has already done and excited for the possibility of future projects. And even if you can’t receive an A on your grant application, receiving a check for your organization is, of course, a pretty close second.

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Photo: Carolina Thread Trail’s Rocky River Blueway, a paddle trail for canoes and kayaks, opened its first segment in Cabarrus County earlier this year. More boat launches are planned for 2015. Once completed, the Rocky River Blueway will stretch nearly 60 miles and wind through four counties.

Leaving my Mark on the Organization by Leaving their Mark in the Community

The Carolina Thread Trail is a planned regional network of greenways, trails and blueways that will ultimately connect 15 counties, 2 states and 2.3 million people. With the tagline of “Weaving Communities Together” the Thread Trail works to link people, places, cities, towns and attractions together. The Thread Trail preserves our natural areas and is a place for exploration of nature, culture, science and history. This is a landmark project that provides public and community benefits for everyone, in every community. It is creating a community and conservation legacy that will give so much, to so many, for so long.

In my first few months as a Davidson Impact Fellow for the Carolina Thread Trail, I haveCompleted stencil 7 oaks spent most of my time learning and listening. Although the Carolina Thread Trail is an organization based so close to the college with trail segments in the town of Davidson, I was not fully aware of the organization and its mission until I heard about it through the Davidson Impact Fellows program. Within my first days at the organization, it became apparent that I was not alone in my lack of familiarity with the Thread Trail. The Thread Trail is a relatively young organization, with its beginnings in 2007. For the first years of its existence, Thread Trail staff and advocates worked with communities to establish and adopt a planned route in each county. Now, seven years down the road, the thread has over 220 miles of completed trail segments spread out throughout its footprint and two “blueway” paddling routes along the South Fork and Rocky River. Despite these resources, the fear of the lack of familiarity with the organization in the community was a central theme in my conversations with my co-workers.

My one-year fellowship with the Thread Trail will focus on measuring the current level of community awareness and work on smallprojects designed to increase that level of awareness. One of my first projects involves signage and trails. Signs are expensive, but necessary to inform trail users they are on a segment of the Carolina Thread Trail. My task was to try to research alternative ways of marking trails in a more cost-effective manner.  The result of the work so far is a pavement stencil with the Thread Trail name and logo. This stencil could be used to mark many of our paved section of trails incommunities where other signage opportunities are limited. After testing paints, my co-worker and I were able to put the first stencil on the ground at one of the Thread’s signature trails, the Seven Oaks Trail in Gaston County. Although it is only some paint on the pavement, stenciling the Thread Trail’s logo has been a tangible way my work has contributed to the goals of the organization—and made a very literal mark on some of the local communities as well.

The impact of trails, the impact of a fellow

Tree Amigos!

Tree Amigos!

One year as a fellow. I’ve researched, studied, data-crunched, and presented. I’ve walked, biked, paddled, and hiked. I’ve mapped, plant-IDed, chopped, and chain-sawed. I’ve spent an excellent year of analyzing, promoting, and stewarding the land and trails that my two organizations protect and build. I have gained many skills and have many stories to tell. In thinking about how to sum up my year in a blog post, I came back to the title of the program. The Davidson Impact Fellowship.

The purpose of the Davidson Impact Fellowship program is to provide hands-on experience in non-profit work, giving the fellow an opportunity to shape the community in which they work and make a meaningful contribution towards tackling challenging and critical community issues. I spent a year with the Catawba Lands Conservancy and the Carolina Thread Trail. They serve as land stewards and trail builders in the Southern Piedmont covering 15 counties in North and South Carolina. While many people can understand and accept the environmental, health, and recreational benefits of the protected land and trails, few fully realize the extent to which both are an economic driver for communities and regions. My primary role this year was to help tell this economic impact story.

I could tell within the first few days of getting to know my organizations, networking with others in the trail community, and researching trail impact studies from across the country, that this was a highly prioritized project across the field. Trail advocates have long sought after concrete, quantitative evidence of economic benefits to pair with the numerous qualitative data and anecdotal stories. I spent 12 months working towards this goal and the more I delved into the project, the more I could tell that my efforts would be truly valuable. It was both challenging and rewarding to create ways to tangibly demonstrate this connection between trails and economic benefits. It required creativity, persistence, and focus on details while working towards a big picture goal.

Catawba Springs

Catawba Springs

It has been really satisfying at the end of my time to see it all come together and the numerous ways in which my fellowship has been impactful. Most directly, I can see that the meaningful results and products coming from my work will be central to future funding initiatives for my organizations and others. My efforts have greatly contributed to a more complete story of the benefits of trails and greenways. In another light, my role this year has built a partnership between the fellowship program and my organizations, who will be continuing to work with a DIF fellow this coming year and hopefully in the future as well.

Cottonwood Goat Island

Cottonwood Goat Island

Finally, I see that this program–this opportunity– has had an impact on me and my career development. Throughout the year, I was able to work on a variety of projects in several different roles, refine my skills and learn new ones while simultaneously gaining a better understanding of how I want to develop my career. Overall, this past year has given me a better understanding of the struggle non-profits face in achieving their goals and well as the important role they play as a community partner.

Learning to Listen as a Leader

Kouzes and Posner in The Jossey Bass Reader on Nonprofit and Public Leadership describe the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. This fellowship has given me the opportunity to be around many leaders. Here at the Carolina Thread Trail and the Catawba Lands Conservancy, I work closely with Tom Okel, the Executive Director. I see him interact with many other leaders and people of influence in the government, the private sector, and in corporations. Of these five practices, there is one that stands out in my mind as one that is the most crucial and yet underutilized by many people with whom we interact. This practice is the ability to listen. To truly listen and to listen well.

When our organization goes to donors, foundations, grant committees, government officials, corporate partners, and volunteers, it is essential for us to hear what they are saying and understand their point of view. If a donor cares about contributing for reason X, we don’t want to waste all our time and efforts explaining to him or her the benefits of supporting us for reason Y. If townspeople in a rural county don’t support the growth of the trail in their area, we need to be able to understand their concerns so we can properly demonstrate our cause in a way that addresses those specific problems. The power of listening can demonstrate so many things.

I’ve been impressed by Tom’s ability to listen and process what other people say and I have been equally as surprised at the inability of other I’ve run across to apply this skill. I see Tom solve a problem faster by understanding the underlying issues and also demonstrate that the organization truly cares about the opinions of parties we work with. As a non-profit, we are so dependent on community engagement and support from all the sectors we work with it is no wonder this tool can be such a game-changer.

 

Swimming in Trash

Day 2 Trash Crew celebrates their effort

Day 2 Trash Crew celebrates their effort

Crunch, crunch, crunch. I walked from the trails’ edge to the shoreline—about 10 feet. The crunching wasn’t leaves fallen from the trees, it was trash. Every step was the crunch of trash. Seven Oaks Trail was an incredible graveyard of trash.

On the edge of the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, we’ve been working to complete the Seven Oaks Trail, a 2.8 mile segment that is part of a 5 mile connector loop. This is a beautiful trail with a diversity of flora and fauna as well as extensive portions along the shore of Lake Wylie. However due to its location and the recent flooding this past summer, Seven Oaks has experienced an unfortunate problem. An incredible trash problem.

When there is massive flooding in a region, all of the trash is collected by the floodwater and sent into the creeks and streams due to insufficiencies in our storm water management systems. The trash makes its way into our lakes and rivers. Floodplain shorelines then quickly convert in trash depositories. When the waters finally go down, we can see the results along these shores and the result of our society’s waste production. Thousands and thousands of bottles; hundreds and hundreds of cans, balls, toys, shoes, tires, cigarettes, lighters, spray cans, treated wood, and Styrofoam. That’s what covered the shores of Seven Oaks Trail a few weeks ago.

Prior to our trash pickup, this property was annexed by the City of Belmont. I’d like to give a shout out to the City of Belmont because it is efforts like theirs that inspire our mission, build partnerships for better communities, and show the power of working together. Folks from the City of Belmont called us up to welcome the CTT to Belmont and informed us that they’d love to help. Belmont offered a huge dump truck and recycling services. Something we wouldn’t have been able to contract without them. Thanks to Belmont, we were able to coordinate a huge effort to collect trash and recycling on our new trail in time for the opening on December 6th.

The Carolina Thread Trail has a lot of work days with staff, volunteers, and corporate partners. A few weeks ago, the Carolina Thread Trail worked over two days with staff and volunteers to get this trail ready for use. In the freezing cold, dedicated volunteers came and help us pick up the gross, seemingly endless amount of trash along the shore. By the end, we had collected 136 bags of recycling, 62 bags of trash, 32 old tires, and 32 bags of pre-collected trash along the road by City of Belmont Public Works Crew. In total, the clean-up weighed in at 1,385 lbs. or approximately ¾ a ton of trash and debris.

What an impact.

The Most Powerful Thing So Far…

By Cakey Worthington ’13photo[1]

It is crazy to think that I am already two months into my year as a fellow and two months into my first job. It’s big; it’s exciting; and it’s going by so fast. Through the generous funding of the Davidson Impact Fellows program, I am a research fellow at the Carolina Thread Trail under the organizational umbrella of the Catawba Lands Conservancy. I live a comfortable 20 minutes from Davidson in downtown Charlotte, a wonderful city many students never get to explore.

The Carolina Thread Trail is a non-profit trail project connecting communities through greenways, blueways, trails, and sidewalk-connector paths. The organization currently has over 120 miles of developed trail with many more adopted connector paths and will eventually develop into a 1,500 mile trail network across 15 counties in North and South Carolina.

My primary goal in this position is to determine the economic impact of the Carolina Thread Trail across the region, although I intend to work on a diversity of projects in the office with the Catawba Lands Conservancy as well. So far, I have innovated and will soon launch several survey studies with local business owners, trails users, and realtors, in order to begin to piece together the economic impact story. All of the people I have talked to in my short time here have been enthusiastic and energetic about this economic impact initiative.

I have met with government officials, non-profit leaders, and trail users and supporters throughout my eight weeks so far. It is in meeting all of these people that I have determined what the most powerful thing about this fellowship is. This “Davidson Impact Fellowship” is what its name implies; it is truly an impactful thing I am doing here. Right out of the starting gate, it was clear to me that everyone I talked to was excited and motivated by the work I would be doing. The economic impact story of these trails will become a tool for all of these people, a tool to fortify what to some is obvious: that trails are good for the community, the environment, and the economy. Trails and greenways are a triple-win; but in a time of reduced government spending, funding is harder to come by for continued development of this project.

I know how helpful my work will be, and that is my favorite part of this job. In many ways, it has been both intimidating and motivating. After the tremendous responses from all the people I’ve met, I felt a bit of pressure make sure my end products are truly useful. It is that realization that I may have a real impact that encourages me to work hard. When I think about what I want to accomplish, I remember that I only get one year to make it all happen. I’m already two months in and time is certainly flying. Luckily, I feel that I have a good handle on my vision for these projects and how to work within the year-long timeline. Additionally, I am given hearty encouragement and sound advice from my program mentors: my boss, Executive Director of the Catawba Lands Conservancy, Tom Okel, and the Davidson Alumni Director, Marya Howell. It is with the help of these sage guiding individuals that I have been so successful already.

As I delve into the heart of my work here, I hope to be thinking and acting deliberately so that each thing I do here, no matter how small, can contribute to the greater impact I have both on this organization and in the Thread Trail’s footprint as a whole.

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