Sometimes great endeavors begin with commonsense notions. Mountain Island resident Mary McDaniel wanted to protect the quality of the drinking water around her community 30 years ago. After all, it was a water source for hundreds of thousands of people, so she did not want its shores becoming overdeveloped. In 1991, she brought together a group of like-minded people around her dining room table to see what could be done. Little did she know that the group would one day become the Catawba Lands Conservancy.
McDaniel and her band of volunteers, which included ecologists and activists, according to former Executive Director Tom Okel, began attracting media attention and then the ear of local government officials. She chose the name Save Mountain Island Lake for Everyone (SMILE) for her organization. Her efforts bore fruit rapidly as Mecklenburg County proposed a $5.6 million bond that same year to allow the county to buy the lakefront property McDaniel wanted to safeguard.
The county’s decision infused SMILE with confidence, name recognition and larger dreams. The group realized there was a need for conservation work along the Catawba River Basin and formed an official nonprofit. Ron Altmann served as its leader during its first decade. In 1995, the Conservancy acquired and protected its first property, the Catawba Wildflower Glen just below Mountain Island Lake. Later that year, it completed its first conservation easement along Lake Wylie.
Slowly the Conservancy grew from a grassroots advocacy organization without funding into a respected and nationally accredited land trust that has conserved more than 240 properties totaling over 17,000 acres across seven counties. Its mission is still to protect local drinking water, but has expanded to also protect wildlife and local farms, as well as provide the public with a direct connection to the natural world.
Private landowners who share the Conservancy’s vision have played an instrumental role in its success over the years. Joyce Burt and Danny Wallace, siblings and landowners in Mount Holly, decided to enter into a conservation easement with the Conservancy in 2000 for their family’s 34 acres. In 1941, their father and uncle purchased about 80 acres of land for roughly $100. Eventually, the two men split up the land, and the siblings kept their father’s share that had not been previously sold off.
“We didn’t want anybody to build any houses on the property,” Joyce Burt said. “We didn’t want to sell the land; we wanted to keep it as it was, as wild and free as it could be. It has all kinds of wildflowers and plants, open fields, a forest, a small creek. There are swirling Ladies’ Tresses with small white flowers that go up the stem that are gorgeous.”
Burt and Wallace also spot foxes, raccoons, rabbits, Swallowtail and Common Buckeye Butterflies and hummingbirds roaming and soaring through their natural habitat.
“I’m really glad somebody had the brains to get the Conservancy started, so we can have areas that are appropriate for wildlife to live in instead of just humans,” Burt said. “We are a part of nature, and we have to realize we all need to have a place to live.”
Striking the right balance between conservation and urban development exists as a part of the Conservancy’s DNA in large part thanks to Frank Bragg. He joined the Board of Directors in 1996 and served on it for 12 years, two of them as Board Chair. Bragg brought his financial background as a Registered Investment Advisor with him to his work with the Conservancy, helping landowners understand the mechanics of conservation easements from the perspective of tax implications and understanding federal and state requirements.
When he arrived on the Board, Bragg said the focus for land trusts in North Carolina centered on protecting national heritage sites with special flora and fauna that required specific regulations under federal law. Yet throughout his tenure, the Board saw the disappearance of farms and large tracts of fields and forests that were needed for local food and wildlife habitat. In response, the Conservancy began prioritizing farms, forests and open space.
Jean Woods, Chair of the Land Stewardship Committee and Board Member from 2002 to 2008, recalls a study done by Mecklenburg County during that time showing which properties across the region were still available for purchase. The amount was shrinking due to development and urban sprawl.
“We were keeping an eye on all that and trying to conserve all we could that was still available to buy outright,” she said. “We knew the benefits of natural space and forest – cleaner air, mediating heat, how it was economically beneficial to the community because it created higher quality of life. But we always wrestled with the question: If we owned something or had it under an easement, could the public use it? With an easement, it was almost always no. But the Thread Trail changed that.”
In 2005, the Foundation For The Carolinas (FFTC) brought together more than 40 regional leaders and organizations to identify the region’s most important environmental needs. Preserving natural open spaces emerged as the number one priority, and the idea for the Carolina Thread Trail was born.
Dave Cable, Executive Director of the Conservancy between 2004 and 2011, recalls how the Thread Trail became a reality. In 2006 the Conservancy held conversations with Michael Marsicano, the CEO and President of FFTC, along with Ruth Shaw, a member of the FFTC Board, to discuss becoming the lead agency for the 15-county, two-state network of trails, blueways and conservation corridors. Today, it spans 325 miles on land with an additional 170 miles of blueway that are all open to the public – and is still growing.
Cable points to the adoption of the Carolina Thread Trail Master Plan by 88 municipalities as a huge accomplishment for the organization, which culminated in 2015 under the leadership of Executive Director Tom Okel.
“Municipalities learned about the Thread Trail through presentations and signed on,” Cable said. “We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without those supporting government relationships.”
In 2007, the Conservancy became one of the first land trusts in the nation to be officially accredited by the Land Trust Alliance. By the end of 2013, it had conserved over 10,000 acres, weathered a global recession and conserved The Fork, which is still its largest protected property at 500 acres.
The Conservancy has journeyed a long way, but of course there is always more work to be done. Current Executive Director Bart Landess is thrilled that the message of conservation is catching fire throughout the community.
“My impression is that for years we had to convince people that what we were doing is worthwhile,” he said. “Now we’re heavily recognized and it’s apparent that what we do is helpful. Everyone is saying, ‘Hurry up! Conserve! Preserve!’”
Those who learned about the work of the Conservancy over the decades often fell deeply in love with its aspirations. For example, Bragg’s family donated 400 acres toward the Ramah Creek Conservation Area in Huntersville, N.C.
“If there’s one thing I’ve done on this Earth other than love and enjoy my family, it’s land conservation,” Bragg said. “It’s the only thing I have really done in the scheme of things that will outlive me because it’s permanent. It’s your gift to the broader community.”