Catawba Lands Conservancy focuses on growth

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In 1976, fewer than 90,000 acres in the 15-county region that includes Charlotte had been developed.

By 2006, developed land in the region had grown to nearly 1 million acres, a total that is expected to nearly double by 2030.

Working to try to balance that development with conservation is the Charlotte-based Catawba Lands Conservancy, or CLC, a land trust formed in 1991 to protect land that affects the quality of drinking water in a six-county region.

“Our goal is not to impede development but to be part of the growth,” says Tom Okel, executive director.

A key goal for CLC as the region keeps growing is to help it continue to “value conservation so that this area remains such a special place to work and live,” says Okel who joined the organization in October 2011 after a 20-year career in investment banking, most recently as global head of syndicated capital markets for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Operating with an annual budget of roughly $750,000, CLC has protected nearly 13,000 acres through conservation easements and land purchases.

CLC also serves as lead agency for a regional effort known as Carolina Thread Trail, named to reflect the region’s textile heritage, that aims to develop a connected trail that ultimately would stretch over 1,400 miles through 15 counties in the Carolinas.

Launched in 2007 with $17 million from corporations, foundations and individuals to help counties plan and begin building their segments of the Thread, the effort has helped 14 of the 15 counties develop and adopt master plans.

The Thread project, including 113 miles already available for public use, is helping to drive conservation work at CLC, which aims to have protected a total of 50,000 acres in 20 years, Okel says.

Water quality continues to represent a core focus of CLC, which has protected thousands of acres along the Catawba River, the main source of drinking water for the region, and and along the river’s South Fork and numerous lakes in the river system.

CLC over the years also has expanded its work to include preserving farms and wildlife habitat, and connecting people to nature.

Through TreesCharlotte, a public-private partnership that aims to plant 25,000 trees a year to increase the city’s “tree canopy” to 50 percent of the city by 2050 from 46 percent today, currently the highest in the U.S., CLC in the most recent year managed the NeighborWoods initiative that planted over 1,000 trees, mainly in low-income neighborhoods.

And in 2011, CLC handled 10 conservation projects, including six that will include segments of the Thread Trail.

Completing the Thread, which initially was projected to total 500 miles and cost $140 million, likely will cost much more because communities have identified much more trail that needs to be built, Okel says.

CLC, which raises money both for the trail and for its own work, last year posted a 30 percent increase in its development revenue.

And for the second straight year, Duke Energy has agreed to give $50,000 to match other donations.

A key goal of the Thread project is to “tie together counties and towns on a common project,” Okel says, “and to leave a lasting asset to define the communities.”

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