After 13 years of conserving more than 6,800 acres along the Catawba River, the Katawba Valley Land Trust has something special to celebrate at its annual meeting Thursday – the hiring of the group's first full-time paid employee.
The Lancaster-based Trust has hired Austin Jenkins as executive director. He replaces Lindsay Pettus, who has served as the unpaid director since the organization's founding in 1995.
Pettus will continue to serve as president and as one of seven board members.
“I feel a bit like I'm passing the torch to the next generation,” joked Pettus, 68, who said the group will continue to work out of his Lancaster real estate office.
“We're delighted with Austin joining us. He's an educator, biologist and naturalist who brings professionalism to an office that has depended on volunteers for our entire existence.”
Joining Pettus and Jenkins at the 7 p.m. Thursday meeting will be featured speaker and nationally-known naturalist Rudy Mancke, former host of the ETV show “Nature Scene.” Mancke was a mentor to Jenkins when he was an undergraduate at the Citadel and helped him decide on his career.
Jenkins, 31, has a master's in entomology and a doctorate in forest resources from Clemson University.
He grew up outside of Camden on the shores of the Catawba on Lake Wateree and said the new job is a natural fit because he understands the importance of land conservation along the river amidst rapid development coming south from Charlotte.
“Our family had about 20 acres along Cedar Cove where we'd fish and hunt,” Jenkins said Thursday from the banks of the Catawba. “My father would take me deer hunting down in the flood plains below the dam, through the canebrakes with those huge sycamore trees. It was an idyllic life.”
Jenkins' wife, Karin, is a physician in Camden, and they have two children: Robert, 2 1/2, and Mary Kathryn, 1.
Before starting at the trust three weeks ago, Jenkins had worked as a naturalist and natural resources manager with Sandhill Research and Education Center at Clemson.
He said he took the job because he was intrigued with the opportunity of working so directly with land conservation.
“They have a remarkable track record here of creating conservation easements with landowners, as well as working with state agencies in preserving and transferring property,” he said. “I'm lucky to have a job in which I can combine my passion for natural history and teaching while directly helping conserve land and preserving our natural resources.”
The trust's stated mission is the protection of natural and cultural resources of the Catawba River Valley. The group does this in several ways – by conservation easements, which convey tax incentives to landowners for not developing sections of their property; direct purchase of threatened undeveloped property; and the acquisition of land and transfer of it to others to manage, such as to a state park.
Pettus says that a factor in the board's hiring a full-time director was the increasing size of the acreage the group is helping manage – its 22 conservation easements require annual visits and evaluations.
The bottom line is that, with limited state funds to create new parks, conservation easements are an affordable alternative to preserve natural resources.
“Our plan, with the hiring of Austin, is not to slow down, but continue to do what we've been doing,” Pettus said. “There's a lot of land out along the Catawba and its tributaries that could use all of our help. We'll be announcing another good-sized project by the end of the year.”