Blue Ridge Conservancy's Walter Clark Stepping Down as Executive Director
Since 2008, Walter Clark has led a grassroots effort to conserve mountain landscapes in the High Country as the executive director of the local land trust, Blue Ridge Conservancy (BRC). In June, Clark will be officially stepping down from his post as BRC reaches a milestone in 2017: 20,000 acres of land protected.
Prior to this position Clark was the Executive Director of Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust (BRRLT) where he was instrumental in overseeing the merger of BRRLT with High Country Conservancy resulting in what is now known as Blue Ridge Conservancy.
The merger of these two groups created a stronger organization with the capacity to advance land preservation in our northwest mountains to an unprecedented level. BRC has protected nearly 20,000 acres in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey Counties. In addition to protecting working farmland, BRC’s efforts have resulted in the creation of state natural areas like Beech Creek Bog, Bear Paw State Natural Area and Bullhead Mountain. BRC continues to help Grandfather Mountain State Park and Elk Knob State Park expand their borders and established Pond Mountain Game Land in Ashe County.
“Our region has benefited immeasurably from Walter’s leadership of BRC,” said Ann Browning, BRC’s Board of Trustees President. “Because of his deep passion, integrity, and his ability to connect with people to find common ground, the High Country is a better place to live and visit.”
Clark has a long history of environmental education, policy and management. Before beginning his tenure in land conservation, he directed the legal program for North Carolina Sea Grant at North Carolina State University. While there, he co-founded the University of North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Law, Planning and Policy Center.
In his spare time, Clark and his partner operate a beautiful, historic blueberry farm in Ashe County, NC. “This timing of my departure is not coincidental as it corresponds with the opening of the 2017 blueberry season at Old Orchard Creek Farm. This year may be the first time since we became stewards of this wonderful farm that I’ll be able to devote full attention to our business and guests,” said Clark.
Clark and Johnny Burleson purchased and restored the farm in 2003. Not long thereafter they decided to put the land in a conservation easement, preserving its cultural and pastoral elements forever. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a model for agricultural Best Management Practices. This was just the beginning of Clark’s long track record of discovering special places with agricultural, ecological, cultural, recreational, or scenic value with a mission of conserving their values.
The purchase and conservation of Old Orchard Creek Farm serendipitously launched BRC’s first and largest land protection project. The farm’s previous owner also owned Pond Mountain, located in the northwest corner of NC and offering views of North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain, Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, and Virginia’s Mount Rogers. It was his wish to see this mountain protected in the same fashion as Old Orchard Creek.
In 2010, the Blue Ridge Conservancy — aided by the National Committee for the New River (now New River Conservancy), Foundation for the Carolinas, Blue Ridge Forever, Clean Water Management Trust Fund, Natural Heritage Trust Fund, and an individual donor — transferred nearly 1,800 acres on and around Pond Mountain to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Successful efforts to expand upon these 1,800 contiguous acres have resulted in increasing the size of the game lands to 2,900 acres to date.
The preservation of Pond Mountain offered major environmental benefits by presenting an opportunity to restore a high elevation ecosystem from previous agriculturally managed Christmas tree cultivation. Removing this land use practice will improve the water quality of major headwater streams that drain to the New River.
Clark’s vision to protect the precious mountain resources of the High Country includes expanding recreational access and linking special, natural places so that residents and visitors experience the land. This in turn benefits the work of the Conservancy with community support and crucial partnerships. This concept included adopting the Middle Fork Greenway initiative in partnership with High Country Pathways to connect the towns of Boone and Blowing Rock with a safe, pedestrian and cyclist-friendly trail. The greenway also offers public access to the Middle Fork of the New River, and provides a buffer and greenspace along the streambanks.
“Walter was instrumental in the recent growth of the Middle Fork Greenway Project,” said Zika Rea, BRC’s Board of Trustees Vice President. “He was incredibly gracious to take the time to lead our group toward hiring an executive director. His knowledge and ideas have accelerated the vision of the Middle Fork Greenway. He has been a pleasure to work with and a great resource for the Greenway.”
“BRC is in a strong place. That is exemplified by our land protection successes in 2016 and by the fact that we just more than doubled our year-end appeal results over previous records,” said Clark. “We are about to write a new chapter and BRC needs a leader who can see it from beginning to end. I wish that could be me but other challenges and adventures call.”
The BRC Board of Trustees, staff, members, and supporters extend our sincere appreciation and admiration for Walter’s dedication to BRC, and wish him well as he shifts his focus to accomplish new goals. The BRC Board of Trustees will be conducting a search for the next executive director.