Partner Spotlight: The Conservation Fund
The Conservation Fund, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015, focuses on conservation that works for America. This focus is carried out by creating conservation solutions that make environmental and economic sense. The Conservation Fund builds strong partnerships with communities and helps them capitalize on their natural features and cultural assets.
A national nonprofit environmental organization, The Conservation Fund has worked to preserve land in all 50 states, resulting in more than 7.5 million acres protected since the organization’s inception in 1985.
The Conservation Fund’s work takes on many forms, including their Balancing Nature and Commerce Program.
Balancing Nature and Commerce
Through the Balancing Nature and Commerce Program, the Conservation Fund works directly with communities to foster economic development while preserving natural resources.
“We work with rural communities to help them develop a more sustainable economy by protecting and enhancing their unique community character and sense of place,” said Kendra Briechle, Senior Training Associate for the Conservation Fund’s Conservation Leadership Network.
Communities can participate in the Balancing Nature and Commerce Program by attending the national training course, which will take place this year on May 3-5 at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
The national training course is unique for two reasons, according to Briechle. First, it’s a team-based course, meaning that every community, region or group that attends must have several stakeholders participate. The Conservation Fund asks that teams have a local elected official and a public or private land manager, as well as other relevant stakeholders, which Briechle says can include representatives from the tourism industry, business owners or other conservation groups.
“We’ve had everybody from bakers to clergy on these teams; very diverse groups participate,” Briechle said.
The second unique component of the training course is that it’s an action planning process. The goal of the course is to facilitate finding common ground among stakeholders and have them identify a project on which they want to work and develop an action plan.
“We find that that action plans are more likely to be implemented and the efforts sustained because it’s a team-based approach and there is agreement among stakeholders,” Briechle said.
After the national training course, some communities invite The Conservation Fund to work more closely with them through place-based workshops. The program has had many great successes.
The 12 counties in North-Central Pennsylvania that make up the Pennsylvania Wilds used to be very disparate, disconnected and in competition with one another, Briechle said. Following their participation in the Balancing Nature and Commerce Program and partnership with the state, they have transformed the area into one with a strong regional identity.
The town of Ridgway, Pennsylvania, used to be home to the area’s lumber barons and has old rail lines that date from its timbering era. However, residents had no place to hike or bike safely because their rural roads are narrow and winding.
To provide residents with access to recreation, the community planned a rails-to-trails project that became the 18-mile-long Clarion-Little Toby Creek Trail.
After it opened, not only did residents flock to the trail, but bicyclists from out of town arrived, toting thousand-dollar bikes and spandex outfits to go biking for the weekend in the Pennsylvania Wilds. Recognizing this as an economic opportunity, businesses opened to provide bike repair and bike parts.
The trail was designed to benefit the residents, but it ended up bringing in visitors as well, sparking economic development and allowing Ridgway to capitalize on its natural beauty and lumber heritage.
Also in Ridgway, community members got together to revitalize a dilapidated community park.
A group of local people used their chainsaw carving skills on trees stumps, transforming them into carvings of bears, raccoons, eagles and other animals as a unique feature for the park.
The participants enjoyed chainsaw carving in the park, and decided to spring from a backyard gathering to host what is now an international gathering for chainsaw carvers.
Now over a decade old, the Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous brings tens of thousands of people to the tiny town of Ridgway every February.
The Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous also attracts over two hundred chainsaw artisans from around the world, who are required to donate one of their pieces to be auctioned off. Artists can sell other pieces, but the auction proceeds go back to the local community.
“The Rendezvous helped birth an artisan economy across the Pennsylvania Wilds with the realization that people value the unique and the authentic,” Briechle said.
Every county in the Pennsylvania Wilds has an artisan outlet now, which provides jobs and contributes to economic development.
There have always been artists and craftspeople in the area, but in the last 10 years they’ve opened up new markets and new opportunities across the area, including an artisan trail. Sustainable tourism, ecotourism and cultural heritage have brought new pride to the area, as well as a tremendous economic impact.
The 12-county Pennsylvania Wilds region topped $1.7 billion in visitor spending in 2013. The Pennsylvania Wilds Artisan Trail doubled its offerings in 2012, up to 30 locations from 15. Since 2008, 56 small businesses have opened and 57 small businesses have expanded, creating 264 new jobs, according to The Conservation Fund.
Unicoi County, Tennessee
Unicoi County, Tennessee, is home to the beautiful 10,000-acre Rocky Fork, a mountain range within Appalachia that The Conservation Fund worked to conserve, together with the U.S. Forest Service and the state of Tennessee.
The community knew that for conservation at this scale to succeed, it must make economic sense, so a team from the region attended the Balancing Nature and Commerce national course.
For their action plan, training course participants from Unicoi County focused on cleaning up the town’s scenic overlook, Beauty Spot.
Beauty Spot was treasured by the community as a popular spot for a date, family picnic or to look at the stars, but access to it had degraded. The parking lot pavement and the road leading to it were broken up, and it lacked facilities.
At the beginning of the project, the relationship between Unicoi County and the Forest Service was weak, but working together on cleaning up Beauty Spot transformed their relationship and opened the door for other projects and partnerships to take place.
For example, when the Forest Service replaced signage leading to the surrounding Cherokee National Forest, Unicoi County asked that the signs be rerouted to go through the small towns of Erwin and Unicoi, rather than going directly from the highway to the forest. That way, forest visitors would pass through local towns. The Forest Service agreed.
“Having people come through the town gave the town the opportunity for downtown revitalization and new businesses,” Briechle said. “It’s good for the residents and good for the visitors.”
As a result, the people of Unicoi started a farmers market in the downtown.
Inspired by their recent success, Unicoi wanted to make sustainable tourism a stronger part of the county’s economy, so they invited the Conservation Leadership Network to hold a place-based workshop, engaging more than 60 local leaders and residents.
The workshop raised awareness of Unicoi County’s natural assets, community character and quality of life, as well as increased the capacity of community business leaders to grow sustainable tourism. The workshop highlighted world-class fishing, whitewater rafting adventures on the nearby Nolichucky River, hiking along the Appalachian Trail and less-recognized resources, like seasonal festivals and local artisans.
The conserved land at Rocky Fork also received a state park designation, which the community expects to bring more economic development.
Small Steps to a Strong Economy
The success of the Balancing Nature and Commerce Program demonstrates how facilitating relationships between community stakeholders and collectively creating a vision for the community can yield big results.
Projects like creating signage that leads visitors through a downtown may seem like small successes, but those small partnerships build trust between stakeholders, which can then be expanded in the future.
“If there’s an opportunity for stakeholders to engage with one another, communities can create winning changes,” Briechle said.
Those small wins foster collaborations between stakeholders, and they build community capacity to do more, like in the case of the Ridgway Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous. One success led to another, and each success helped the community define its sense of place and capitalize on it.
“Sometimes projects can be such simple things, but they cause the community to turn on a dime and build community confidence as a result,” Briechle said.
The Conservation Fund is making conservation work for America by helping communities recognize the natural and historical assets they already have, and making those assets work economically for residents.
To learn more about making conservation work for your community, visit the Conservation Fund online and build a team to apply to participate in the 2016 national Balancing Nature and Commerce in Rural Communities and Landscapes training course.