Volunteer group champions wetlands

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — In January, in preparing a report to the state on the environmental impact of the proposed expansion in southeast Wake County of the 540 loop around Raleigh, the Southern Environmental Law Center asked the Carolina Wetlands Association to assess the impact of the proposed expansion on roughly 60 acres of wetlands it would affect.

The Association responded that it was concerned that plans for the proposed expansion would not adequately protect amphibians in the wetlands.

And in 2016, Triangle Greenways Council asked the Association to survey land the Council had purchased along the Neuse River in Wake County, identify wetlands in the area, and assess the status of the wetlands and threats to them.

Promoting the understanding, protection, restoration and enjoyment of wetlands and associated ecosystems in the Carolinas through science-based programs, education and advocacy is the mission of the Association, says Rick Savage, its president.

Operating with an annual budget of only $3,000, the all-volunteer organization was formed in 2015 after the administration of former Gov. Pat McCrory returned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funding from several grants the state had received to support wetlands research in the Division of Water Quality, says Savage, whose job as a senior environmental specialist was eliminated by the decision.

From 2004 to 2009, over 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands, on average, were lost each year in the U.S., up from 60,000 acres a year the previous five years, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Atlantic Coast alone lost nearly 112,000 acres of wetlands in the five years ended in 2009, the study said.

With its tiny budget, the Carolina Wetlands Association so far has focused on a “Wetland Treasures” campaign that each May has recognized five wetlands in the Carolinas, conducted tours of the sites and published fact sheets about them on its website.

Seven of the wetlands are in North Carolina, including Robertson Mill Pond in Wake  County, and Mason Farm Wetlands in Orange County.

The biggest threats to wetlands are development and large-scale agriculture, says Savage, who also serves as co-chair of the steering committee for the Wetland Forest Initiative, a two-year old effort that focuses on conserving, restoring and preserving wetland forests in 14 states in the southeastern U.S.

The Southeast is the most diverse ecological region in North America, Savage says.

Wetlands help preserve water quality by filtering nutrients and metals used in agriculture and development. They help limit flooding, and protect against rising sea levels, by absorbing water. They help stabilize shore lines on steams and lakes. And they help protect critical habitats.

Roughly half of endangered species in the U.S. require wetlands, Savage says, and North Carolina is home to more species of salamander than any other state.

Carolina Wetlands Association, which raises money through a year-end appeal to about 400 supporters, now is developing plans to increase its fundraising so it can hire a part-time executive director and part-time business manager and development director.

“Wetlands help make our water cleaner, prevent property damage from flooding, and provide critical habitats to species that live in wetlands,” Savage says.

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EDF links environment, economic prosperity

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — In 2007, North Carolina lawmakers passed a law requiring electric utilities in the state to phase in the use of energy efficiency and renewable energy sources as part of their production of energy. The measure was the first of its kind in the Southeast.

Today, clean energy represents a $7 billion industry in the state, accounting for 34,000 jobs, and North Carolina ranks second among all states in use of utility-scale solar farms.

And this year, state lawmakers enacted a Republican-led bill that calls for roughly doubling renewable energy in the state by 2022.

Playing an instrumental role in passage of both laws was the Raleigh-based Southeast regional office of the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit that works to protect the environment and community health by building bipartisan collaborations and using science, economics and law to underscore the interconnectedness of environmental protection and economic prosperity.

“We have had since the 1980s a very strong focus on having economists on our staff, and understanding the realities of the marketplace and how capital is invested and decisions are made, because so much environmental progress and harm flows from those investment decisions,” says Hawley Truax, who joined the Raleigh office of EDF in January as Southeast regional director.

That approach is critical today in the face of EDF’s “grave concerns about the Trump Administration’s commitment to undermine fundamental environmental and health protections that our organization was instrumental in helping to put in place in the early 1970s that have served this country well — the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act,” says Truax, a former program officer for the environment at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, and before that a senior policy adviser on environmental and energy issues for Govs. Jim Hunt and Mike Easley.

Operating with a staff of 25 people, and raising $4 million to $5 million a year in contributions from individuals and foundations, the Raleigh offices focus mainly on North Carolina.

Its current focus is on issues such as helping the state shift from dependence on fossil fuels such as coal to energy efficiency and clean energy resources, particularly for production of electricity; reducing the use by industrial-scale agriculture of excess nitrogen fertilizer, which is a big source of water pollution, particularly in Eastern North Carolina, and a big source of global warming; and improving the state’s approach to the restoration of rivers and streams harmed by development, particularly highway construction.

In partnership with crop consultants and the Cooperative Extension Service at North Carolina State University, for example, EDF works with farmers to reduce their use of nitrogen fertilizer. It also partners with Smithfield Foods, which has asked farmers in Eastern North Carolina that supply grain for its operations to reduce their use of excess nitrogen fertilizer in their growing process.

EDF also is partnering with the North Carolina National Guard to develop a computer-based system to help it assess the return — both financial and in its ability to respond quickly to disasters — from investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy opportunities as it upgrades its facilities throughout the state.

“We are very committed to broadening the array of voices that are part of the clean energy conversation,” Truax says.

“We’re continuing to grow as a state, and we believe at EDF that economic prosperity and environmental sustainability go hand in hand,” he says. “A prosperous state needs to have a high quality of life, and its human communities need to be healthy. On the flip side, the most durable environmental solutions are economically sustainable and forged through bipartisan cooperation.”

Conservation seen central to Triangle’s prosperity

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — As the Triangle’s population and economy continue to boom, the region is getting thirstier, and protecting its water supply is as essential to sustaining and improving its health and the quality of life for all its residents as making sure it has good roads, schools and other basic infrastructure systems.

What’s more, the job of conserving the land that the region’s supply of clean water depends on is interconnected with addressing other critical needs ranging from food and health to economic development and fighting poverty.

Yet land conservation often is perceived as a marginal issue, making it tougher to include environmental planning in the regional thinking and collaborative strategies the Triangle needs to continue to thrive.

That was the message at Triangle Donors Forum, a quarterly meeting of philanthropists that was held June 12 at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill and sponsored by Triangle Community Foundation.

“Many people think about conservation as something that happens ‘out there’ and not relevant to our lives,” Chad Jemison, executive director of Triangle Land Conservancy in Durham and a panelist at the Donors Forum, told about three dozen people who attended the session.

Jonathan Howes, senior public service fellow at the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and retired director of UNC’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies, told the Donors Forum that land conservation issues need to be integral to policy discussions in the region.

Howes, who moderated the panel, said North Carolina traditionally has preserved its natural assets, in large part through trust funds created by state lawmakers, funding that recently “has declined or been eliminated because of the state of the economy and changing politics.”

The drop in public funds for conservation has created “an opportunity for private philanthropy to fill that gap,” he said.

Robin Jacobs, executive director of the Eno River Association in Durham and another panelist, said money was the biggest issue for conservation in the region.

While some funds are available to help with the actual purchase of land or easements for conservation purposes, she said, it is more difficult to secure the dollars needed for the “transactional” costs associated with the purchase of land and for the “stewardship” required to take an environmental inventory of the land and make sure it remains protected.

“None of us any more will accept donations for land or buy land unless we know where we’ll get the money to pay forits stewardship, said Jacobs, who also is a partner in the Chapel Hill law firm Epting and Hackney.

Jemisen said conservation will play an increasingly critical role for the Triangle.

“There’s an incredible opportunity to make conservation more relevant to urban neighborhoods and metro areas, creating access and linking to health and poverty issues,” he said.

Triangle Land Conservancy, for example, is helping to develop urban gardens and provide access to food, trails and parks, he said.

Five years ago, Triangle Land Conservancy received 200 acres outside Carrboro through a bequest. Now, through partnerships, parts of that land are used for after-school and camp activities by a kindergarten and preschool, and as farmland by Burmese refugees.

Jemisen said the national Land Trust Alliance has land trusts in nearly every county in the U.S.

“Historically, at the state and federal level,” he said, “there’s strong bipartisan support for conservation.”

Jacobs said North Carolina has the biggest share of accredited land trusts in the U.S.

“We’re working hard and doing a good job,” often in partnership with local cities, towns and counties, she said.

Jemisen said a national survey by the Trust for Public Land found an 80 percent approval rating on the willingness to finance bonds or sales-tax increases for clean drinking water.

“The will is there,” he said. “We need to get an increase in political pressure locally.”

Howes, a former mayor of Chapel Hill and a former secretary of the state Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources, said raising public awareness and conveying a sense of the importance of conservation to public officials will be critical.

Conservation, he said, “ought not to be a red or blue issue.”

Jemisen said state funding for conservation likely will return over time in some form.

“But we can’t wait for that to happen,” he said.

Particularly as the region continues to recruit companies and talent, he said, “the pace of growth in the Triangle demands more immediate action.”

Nonprofit focuses on sustainability

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Based on an analysis of 25 homes, the city of Winston-Salem contracted with a handful of companies to do $250 worth of weatherization work at each of those homes, plus another 250 homes, all of them in low-income neighborhoods.

That work has helped reduce those households’ energy costs by 8 percent to 10 percent.The study of those savings was performed by three student interns at The Winston-Salem Sustainability Resource Center, a nonprofit that provides programs and educational services to raise awareness and foster sustainability.

Formed in March 2010, the organization operates with an annual budget of less than $100,000, a staff of one person and a contract worker, a core of 20 volunteers, and typically five summer interns who are college or graduate students. The agency works in space donated by the city of Winston-Salem in the Bryce A. Stuart Municipal Building.

The Resource Center has served a total of 2,000 to 3,000 businesses, schools, local cities and other clients, says Rita Gale Cruise, who joined the Center in October 2012 after working as energy efficiency program coordinator in the West Virginia office of the Natural Capital Investment Fund. The Fund, a community development financial institution certified by the U.S. Treasury, is an arm of The Conservation Fund.

In another pilot project, for example, the Resource Center worked with employees at the Caterpillar plant in Winston-Salem to develop a “sustainability action plan” they could use to get involved in sustainability work involving such issues as energy, water, air, waste, recycling and health.

Based on a recommendation from the Resource Center, Caterpillar is looking at teaming with Herbal Life, which this year will open a distribution center nearby, and Piedmont Area Regional Transportation, which will provide dedicated vans the two companies’ employees can use to get to work and save energy and money.

Instrumental in developing that plan, Cruise says, has been Matthew Johnson, chair of the Resource Center’s board and manager of the Caterpillar plant.

The Resource Center also has worked with Caterpillar employees to create a community garden at its manufacturing plant, located off I-40 in southeast Winston-Salem near the Level Cross neighborhood.

The employees want to grow fruits and vegetables for their own use and to donate to Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina.

The Resource Center also serves as fiscal agent for Forsyth County’s Community Food System Consortium, a collaborative effort spearheaded by Forsyth Futures to connect consumers, producers and distributors of local food, such as farmers, restaurants, groceries and schools in a five-county region.

In a partnership last year with the Forsyth County Health Department, an intern at the Resource Center conducted a survey to identify “food deserts,” or local communities that lack access to fresh food.

The Health Department, in turn, is using the information to try to find ways to get fresh food into communities.

In a pilot project in East Winston-Salem, for example, the Health Department is teaming with Rebecca’s Community Store to get fresh food from local farmers, as well as information about nutrition, to local residents.

The Resource Center, which last fall raised $5,000 through an annual appeal, also received a $25,000 grant from The Winston-Salem Foundation to support operations and to follow up a 2008 project that developed sustainability indicators for the community.

It also has received a $2,500 grant from Piedmont Natural Gas to support sustainability education.

And this fall it will host an event to present community awards for sustainability and raise money.

A key goal for the Resource Center, Cruise says, is to help people “learn about how they can become more sustainable.”

Fundraising, Part 9: Conservation groups connect with donors

By Todd Cohen

[This article was written for Blackbaud.]

Conservation-oriented environmental groups have focused their fundraising on getting donors more involved in “places that matter,” and showing them the impact of their gifts, says Doug Barker, co-founder and principal at Barker & Scott Consulting, a firm that provides management consulting for nonprofits, including environmental organizations.

“We have results you can walk on,” says Barker, quoting John Sawhill, former CEO at The Nature Conservancy, where Barker was the chief information officer.

So environmental and conservation groups have been inviting donors and prospective donors to outings and talking to them about “what’s so special about those particular places.”

Those outings can include activities for families and children, and can pave the way for additional gifts.

Recognizing that the environment is “visually compelling,” Barker says, environmental organizations also are providing donors and prospective donors with images of “what’s at stake in terms of nature, and also what some of the threats are.”

And those groups are using traditional and digital media to reach a broad range of constituents.

“At the end of the day, and not just for environmental groups, you’re really looking at a multi-channel integrated strategy for how you’re going to engage your constituents,” Barker says. “Certain strategies resonate more with some groups than others. But it’s having full portfolios of ways to engage people that can be so effective.”

Those strategies, he says, depend on identifying the needs of individual donors and groups of donors.

For major donors, for example, “it’s all about relationship-building, figuring out what that particular donor is passionate about and how they really want to be engaged.”

Environmental and conservation groups can invite donors on trips, showing them first-hand areas that may be at risk, and developing a more personal relationship.

And organizations increasingly are working to show donors the impact of their giving.

Some groups are using research studies and reports to show the economic value of functioning ecological systems, and providing calculators that visitors to their websites can use to measure their carbon footprint through their diet and the use of home energy, driving, flying, recycling and waste.

They also provide tools, tips and information that people can use to take action, whether to reduce their carbon footprint or contact policymakers, as well as quizzes and adoption programs that can engage them.

World Wildlife Fund invites people to “test your elephant IQ,” for example, or to make a symbolic donation to adopt a snow leopard or penguin.

Those kinds of features can increase a donor’s “affinity and trust and overall respect for an organization that probably could also result in their increasing their support,” Barker says. “It’s a way to make a connection with what you’re doing, even if symbolically, in a more meaningful and tangible way.”

Next: Human services emphasize communication, planning

The series:

Part 1: Growth tied to capacity, cultivation, communication.

Part 2: Healthcare groups invest in capacity.

Part 3: Higher education cultivates major gifts.

Part 4: Data key for independent schools.

Part 5: International affairs groups refine message.

Part 6: Religion focuses on fundamentals.

Part 7: Arts and culture groups focus on donors.

Part 8: United Way diversifies.

Part 9: Conservation groups connect with donors.

Part 10: Communication, planning key for human services.

Part 11: Peer-to-peer strategy fuels medical research.

American Tobacco Trail boosts East Coast Greenway project

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — The bridge that recently was installed over I-40 near The Streets at Southpoint connecting two segments of the American Tobacco Trail represents a key link in an effort to build a greenway system from the southernmost tip of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico through Calais, Maine, on the Canadian border.

“What we’re creating is a linear park all the way from Key West to Canada,” says Dennis Markatos-Soriano, director of the Durham-based East Coast Greenway Alliance.

Formed in 1991 by greenway leaders in Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston, the Alliance works as a “unifying and advocacy organization” to help cities and towns in 15 states and the District of Columbia acquire land, and to help states convert abandoned rail corridors for trails “that are safe and accessible to people of all ages and abilities,” Markatos-Soriano says.

The new bridge over I-40, as well as nearly four miles of paths leading up to the bridge, for example, were funded with $8 million from the city of Durham, including state and federal funds.

Nearly 20 percent of 395 miles of the the East Coast Greenway that are planned for North Carolina and will run from just northeast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Kerr Lake at the Virginia border have been completed.

In the Triangle, 90 percent of 75 miles of projected Greenway is expected to have been  completed in less than a year.

North Carolina also will include an alternative stretch of 390 additional miles of the East Coast Greenway running along the coast from Wilmington to the Virginia border.

The Greenway, which will serve over 45 million people living in communities it crosses, and already attracts 10 million visits a year, will serve as an “urban sister” to the Appalachian Trail that runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, says Markatos-Soriano.

Operating with an annual budget of $520,000, a staff of four people working full-time and three working part-time, and offices in Durham, Philadelphia, Providence, R.I., and Leland, Fla., the Alliance counts on 20,000 supporters, including 2,100 dues-paying members and 80 donors who give $500 or more a year.

In North Carolina, the Alliance has 135 members and 1,000 people who subscribe to its monthly e-newsletter or follow its Facebook and Twitter pages.

Individual donors and members account for over 60 percent of revenues for the Alliance, while government funding accounts for nearly 10 percent, mainly to pay for guides that have been published on the segments of the Greenway that run through Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Foundation support represents about 20 percent of the budget, up from 15 percent a year ago, and the Alliance also receives support from six companies, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and Performance Bike in Chapel Hill.

The Alliance is about to hire a South Atlantic coordinator to help accelerate progress on the Greenway in Virginia and the Carolinas.

And on Oct. 25 and 26, it will host its fall national meeting in Raleigh, an event that will include a State of the Greenway Summit and a cross-Triangle bike ride.

“North Carolina and the Triangle are fast becoming a national greenway leader,” Markatos-Soriano says.