ASHEVILLE, N.C. – In 2019, more than 30,000 acres in Western North Carolina became protected from development, according to Blue Ridge Forever, a coalition of land-trust organizations across the region.
Elsea Brown is executive director of the coalition. She said advocates mainly work with landowners to place land into what’s called conservation easement.
“Without the land changing ownership, the land is protected from development forever,” Brown said. “The other way is through just regular fee-simple acquisition; so just buying properties.”
She said the Southern Blue Ridge is among the most biodiverse regions in the world, with more than 100,000 species estimated to live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone.
Brown said technology is transforming how conservationists do their work.
“The land trusts all use GIS modeling to determine the best areas for conservation based on geography, based on climate resilience, the biological diversity of the area, and then based on proximity to other conserved areas,” she said.
Farmland is particularly sought after by developers; its flatness typically makes it cheaper to build on. Brown said farmland is a primary focus for conservationists.
“So it’s really important that we work with farmers in particular to protect their land from development, so that we can continue to have local sources of fresh food,” she said.
Brown added that both easements and land purchases were made possible largely through public grants and private donations, totaling more than $30 million.