Local and regional land trusts all over the country struggle to cover their operating costs, which can be considerable, given the price of legal expenses and the price of land these days. Foundation grants are the traditional major source of funding but grants are ever-harder come by because of tough competition from other groups with worthy causes. One North Carolina land trust has come up with a way to work with local businesses and tourists to fund its efforts over the long-term, and it’s a model that can be applied across the nation in areas where tourism is driven by a region’s rich natural resources.
The High Country Conservancy may not have originated the idea, but the group sure knew a good idea when it saw one. HCC began implementing what it calls the Host of the High Country Giving Program a couple of years ago. The project is modeled on a successful program begun by the Jackson Hole Land Trust in Wyoming. The HCC heard about the fundraising strategy at a Land Trust Alliance National Rally and thought it sounded like a good idea for use in the North Carolina High Country, which attracts thousands of tourists every year.
The HCC is based in Boone, North Carolina, and serves Avery, Ashe, and Watauga Counties. The group has enlisted the help of twelve inns, motels, and resorts in raising money to fund the group’s conservation efforts. Even in a sluggish economy, people are still going to take vacations, and the giving program takes advantage of the High Country’s appeal to vacationers who want to enjoy beautiful scenery. The project creates a partnership between local businesses, tourists, and the Conservancy, all of whom have a vested interest in preserving the character of the High Country region. “We’re asking people who come up here to enjoy the green spaces to contribute to protecting them,” Cherry says.
Here’s how it works: inns and hotels in the region who participate in the program agree to add a one or two dollar fee to each lodging bill. That money goes directly to the High Country Conservancy to help cover its expenses. Posters in the hotel lobbies and brochures in the rooms inform guests of what the fee is for, and they have the option to remove it if they don’t want to support the HCC’s efforts. The result, the HCC hopes, is a dependable source of income that helps the group limit its dependence on foundation grants, although a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation helped jumpstart the giving program. “It shows that a community organization can team up with local businesses and with tourists to protect the special places that we all love,” says Marla Wilson, Executive Director of the High Country Conservancy.
“You spend so much time trying to raise money to stay in business, and that’s time you could spend on your core mission,” says Bob Cherry, President of the HCC’s Board of Trustees. “The problem with foundation grants is that you may get $10,000 but then you have to go back and ask for more. If all goes well, this project could be a steady stream of income.”
The HCC remains modest in its expectations, however. It hopes to raise enough money to cover operating expenses and in time, generate enough money to help cover many of its land preservation costs. Foundation grants, government grants, private donors, and partnerships with likeminded groups will still be needed to provide funding for large conservation efforts.
Saving land isn’t cheap. While the HCC doesn’t usually buy the land it protects, it does often purchase conservation easements which are legal additions to the deed that determine what the land can be used for in the future. Even if land or easements are donated, it still costs money to survey boundaries, survey for hazardous materials, and pay for legal expenses, filing fees, and title insurance. The HCC also employs a only a full-time salaried Executive Director and and relies heavily on volunteers to accomplish its ballooning volume of conservation work. Thanks to the efforts of an ongoing membership campaign, the HCC’s membership base has grown from 60 to over 500 members in the last two years. The group hopes the hotel giving program will provide the funds to keep the Executive Director working, keep the lights and the phone on, and buy necessary equipment like computers.
Besides providing a stable source of income, the program will also give the HCC more public exposure. Posters in the lobbies and brochures in the rooms explain to guests what the program is about and what the few extra dollars on their bill will be supporting. The project also has the potential to reach people who might want to donate more money or who have land to protect. “You try to keep your name out there and let people know who you are and what you’re doing, and hope they have some land or know somebody with some land to protect. If they don’t know who you are, they can’t work with you,” says Cherry.
The businesses involved can also benefit. “We’re really protecting their livelihood, since their customers come up here to enjoy the natural setting that we’re all working together to protect,” says Wilson. The Lodge at Hound Ears, a resort near Blowing Rock, is one of the twelve participating businesses. “It occurred to us that we needed to develop a marketing strategy that worked for the image of our club and that the membership could feel good about,” says Peter Gushanas, General Manager of the Lodge. “This is a community of people who are fortunate to have traveled and lived in a wide variety of wonderful places across the country. They’re people who are especially and That’s part of why they’re here and they need to either directly or indirectly pay tribute to that. We just decided that it was the right thing to do. We want to improve our image in the local community; we want to feel that we’re making a contribution to the region.”
Hound Ears decided to make the fee automatic because they were uncomfortable with asking guests for donations. Instead, they will allocate a certain amount of every room night’s bill to go to the HCC. Guests will have information about the program and have the opportunity to make additional donations.
Michael Button of the Chetola Resort in Blowing Rock says that the core mission of the HCC is why that business decided to participate in the program. “Their purpose is to protect the area. It’s a worthwhile cause and we want to be able to help,” he says. Chetola will add a fee for each stay, rather than the number of room nights, and will ask guests before adding it on. “We want to be sure it’s well received by guests before we go to the next step,” says Button. Staff members will participate in contests to see who can get the most donations. The HCC will provide training so that staff will be able to talk to guests about the HCC’s work and answer questions.
Currently, the HCC is one of only a dozen of land trusts in the country who have set up programs like this, but the idea could potentially benefit many other such groups who operate in areas where tourism is based on a region’s remarkable scenic beauty and significant natural resources. The High Country Conservancy is a non-profit land trust working to protect the natural resources of Appalachia by conserving land with significant ecological, cultural, recreational, or scenic value in the North Carolina High Country. For more information about the Host of the High Country Giving Program, contact the High Country Conservancy at 828-264-2511 or at www.highcountryconservancy.org.