To begin with, he is a scientist, a forester by training, and when talking about a forest, he has a tendency to describe every tree. But Carlson is also a man of vision, and as the Founding Director of LTLT, in Franklin, North Carolina, he is much more interested in process than in trophies. He modestly points to his “strong and diverse community-based Board of Directors,” as his greatest achievement, because it is the “best assurance of sustainability” for LTLT.
That is not to say the parcels of protected land dotting the 55 miles of the upper Little Tennessee River from the headwaters in north Georgia to Fontana Dam in western North Carolina are not evidence of success—they are. They are gems, like green pearls on a silver necklace. It’s just that Carlson and Sharon Taylor, LTLT’s very talented and tenacious Land Protection Coordinator, are people who envision much more. Their goal is to see the approximately 6,500 acres of flood plain, forests and working farms that are already protected double in size by 2010, to include 75 percent of the actual river frontage. In effect, the 30 miles of river frontage LTLT already has helped protect is only the beginning. But what a beginning it has been, and all accomplished in eight years with a staff that has averaged three people.
LTLT has been a NFF Matching Awards Program (MAP) partner since 2001. The NFF support has been key in launching the Little Tennessee Sustainable Forestry Partnership and in building LTLT’s capacity to expand private land conservation and watershed restoration in the heart of the greatest network of National Forest System lands in the East. I followed LTLT’s successes during my association with Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in north Georgia, which owns several fields through which the Little Tennessee flows.
Over the years, many of our middle and high school students volunteered with LTLT to restore stream banks. In the process, our kids learned fresh water aquatics, the ethics of conservation and a respect for the natural world. What really grabbed my attention, however, was LTLT’s unparalleled success with the Needmore Tract. The Needmore Tract comprises 26 miles of Little Tennessee River frontage, surrounding forest and watershed in one of the most pristine corners of Southern Appalachia. The Needmore was owned and kept wild by a large power conglomerate until five years ago, when the company threatened to sell and develop it. While leading from behind, the LTLT staff put the pieces together for success on the Needmore. They orchestrated local political coups that others thought impossible in western North Carolina.
After a hard-fought battle, having all the complications and setbacks of a well-written cliff hanger, the land was purchased with a combination of public and private funds and turned over to the state in 2004. The Needmore Tract will be managed in perpetuity for the protection of water quality and wildlife habitat as well as for the traditional recreational uses of the local people. When Carlson asked me to join the LTLT board just after the Needmore victory, I was flattered but a little concerned that I had arrived after the party was over. Paul and Sharon assured me, however, that LTLT was just getting started. Since joining, I’ve grown to know and admire the LTLT ethos and to appreciate the elements that combine to ensure the prodigious success of this little conservation organization.
The primary element is passion. Carlson, Taylor and their colleagues have a great love for the culture and history, both natural and human, of this unique valley in the Southern Blue Ridge. A second element is sacrifice. As a board member I have seen Paul Carlson turn down offers of bonuses and salary increases when he felt the money would be better used in the service of conservation.
Collaboration is another element. Carlson recognizes that significant conservation and protection of land can only be achieved with the support of the local citizenry. When residents see that LTLT supports working farms and promotes the wise management of forests, they realize conservation is not about “lock-up.” There is something for everyone on the LTLT menu. Much of LTLT’s success can be attributed to strategic focus. Carlson knows that the Little Tennessee is the Noah’s Ark of Blue Ridge rivers to a great extent because its headwaters flow from conserved land of the Nantahala and Chattahoochee National Forests, so he limits the LTLT emphasis to two specific areas.
First, LTLT concentrates on headwater protection through conservation easements and sound forest management on private lands adjacent to National Forests. Second, LTLT focuses on expanding conservation and restoration of the river corridor itself through direct land protection, including working farms. Paul Carlson is a cautious steward of LTLT’s mission and limited resources. His careful efforts and those of his staff have paid off in major accomplishments for conservation.
Those accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. The 2002 North Carolina Land Conservationist of the Year Award, considered to be the most important conservation award in the state, was presented to the LTLT. In the last 12 months, the sale price for land along the “Little T” has increased by 50 percent. Situated within 250 miles of six of the top 10 centers of “sprawl” in America, development pressure on the land has never been higher. The need for a small, efficient conservation organization with big aspirations has never been greater. The time is right for LTLT, and I’m thrilled and excited to be aboard, the “little land trust that could.” Greg Zeigler is the former headmaster of the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School.
Greg is a member of the LTLT Board of Directors and is completing his first novel, an environmental mystery entitled, The Straw That Broke.
Vice President, Conservation Programs
NFF conservation programs, community-based conservation
Ecosystem Services Program Manager
Tree-planting & Carbon Capital Fund programs
Director, Northwest Programs
NFF programs in WA, OR, AK, ID
Director, California Program
NFF programs in CA
Director of Conservation Awards
Grants and grant programs