The politically odd couple striding up a rocky trail in the Roan highlands Wednesday came to celebrate a conservation landmark, and to plot its rebirth.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Sen. Richard Burr, the conservative North Carolina Republican, are unlikely partners in promoting the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund turns 50 in September and, to survive, must be reauthorized by a skeptical Congress by next year.
Jewell hiked with Burr and a handful of conservation leaders Wednesday as part of her four-state tour this week to rally support for the fund. Burr is co-sponsor of the bill that would reauthorize the fund and allocate money to it.
On a segment of the Appalachian Trail that leads to 6,000-foot Grassy Ridge, one of the sweeping, treeless balds the Roan highlands on the N.C.-Tennessee line are known for, the group was surrounded by a patchwork of parcels the fund has helped protect.
The slim Jewell charged up the trail during the 2 1/2-hour hike, pausing on the way down to pluck blueberries and pose for pictures with T-shirted “Hiker Chicks” from Beech Mountain.
“You can’t get it in a picture. You can’t get it from a map, so you have to come out and see,” said the former petroleum engineer, banker and corporate CEO. “We’re surrounded by rhododendron, the blueberries are ripening, and there are multiple endangered plants here. These are stories we will lose if we don’t help protect places like this.”
Burr: “To understand the value of that pot of money is to understand the value of that treasure you’re trying to protect.”
Conservation land or easements, such as Grassy Ridge, are acquired from private owners. Nonprofit land trusts, which can move more quickly than government, typically negotiate and close the deals, often with the help of private donors. The trusts then hope to transfer the land to public ownership and retire their debt.
The Asheville-based Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy bought the 600-acre Grassy Ridge tract less than two years ago.
“My land trust has wanted to buy this piece of property since it formed in 1974,” said trustee Jay Leutze. “And so when it became available, we jumped off a cliff.”
After rebuffing the conservancy for years, its tract’s owners finally agreed to sell in late 2012. In 12 days the trust raised $3.9 million – some of it from Salisbury philanthropists Fred and Alice Stanback – and closed the deal. Nearly half has been sold to North Carolina parks. The land trust hopes the fund can someday help the U.S. Forest Service or state parks division buy the rest and retire $1.1 million in remaining debt.
North Carolina has received about $230 million in LWCF funding over the past five decades. The fund protects federal lands, such as the Cape Lookout National Seashore and the Pisgah National Forest, but also makes matching grants for state and local use.
Mike Leonard, a Winston-Salem lawyer who has helped negotiate conservation purchases for decades, quickly ticks off the marquee projects in North Carolina the fund has enabled: Panthertown Valley, Roy Taylor Forest, Catawba Falls, the Horsepasture River, Devil’s Courthouse.
“To me, the ecologic values are important but I really like to see this money going to projects that are also marquee in the sense that the public can get out on them, or they enhance and protect already-public places,” said Leonard, who is chairman of the national Conservation Fund.
Burr, wearing a cap from a fly-fishing lodge, said the fund has prevented development from encroaching not only on the Appalachian Trail but also on Fort Bragg’s perimeter. Leveraging private donations with federal money, he said, opens up new access points for hunting and fishing, boosting the state’s economy.
Western lawmakers don’t like the fund because, they say, their states already have too much federal land.
The fund, which is supposed to get up to $900 million a year from offshore drilling revenues, has been fully funded only once in its 50 years. The fund got $322 million of an estimated $5.2 billion in drilling revenues in fiscal 2012.
“I don’t think that they have an argument,” Burr said.
For years, he said, congressional appropriators have given the fund a portion of its authorized amount but decided where the rest would go. “That’s just not the way it was designed to happen, but it’s the way a lot of things end up in Washington,” he said.
Burr said he thinks the fund will get reauthorized but not, immediately, at the full $900 million. Jewell is less sure.
“One of the reasons I’m getting out with advocates like Sen. Burr and going to so many communities across the country is that I don’t think a lot of our elected officials actually know how much the LWCF has benefited their home states,” she said. “It’s going to need to be reauthorized, or else it goes away. And if people don’t know about it or take it for granted, the risks of it going away are greater.”