CH@T: TLC has conserved more than 6,300 acres of land in Chatham. Here’s what else it does.

A conversation with Land Protection Manager Margaret Sands

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Over the last four decades, Triangle Land Conservancy has worked to safeguard clean water, protect natural habitats, support local farms and food, and connect people with nature in the Triangle area. This week, we speak with Margaret Sands, who has worked with TLC since 2015 and oversees its projects in Chatham County.

Sands grew up among stunning natural landscapes along coastal South Carolina that shaped and divided human history, and continue to do so. She earned degrees in environmental studies from Loyola in New Orleans and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

Now living in Durham, Sands is working to ensure everyone living in Chatham and the Triangle has access to open space, local food, and clean water, as well as being involved in TLC’s efforts to use conservation tools to address issues of land loss and unattainable land prices for communities of color through the Good Ground Initiative. The News + Record spoke to Sands about the TLC and her role there.

For those unfamiliar with TLC, can you share about the work the organization does and why it’s impactful to residents in and around the Triangle?

Triangle Land Conservancy is an accredited land trust serving six counties in N.C.’s Triangle region since 1983. Land trusts are private nonprofit organizations whose mission is to conserve land and water. We do so by securing land outright through donations or purchases by willing sellers or by negotiating voluntary conservation agreements with property owners who want to leave their land undeveloped in perpetuity.

TLC makes a positive, permanent impact on the quality of life in the Triangle by safeguarding clean water, protecting wildlife habitats, keeping local farms and food in our community, and providing places for people to connect with nature. We identify the most important natural and working lands in the region and work with landowners, developers, municipalities, nonprofit partners, and the public to conserve these special places. Since our organization began in 1983, we’ve conserved 23,000 acres of land and opened eight public nature preserves, including White Pines Nature Preserve at the confluence of the Deep and Rocky Rivers in Chatham.

When you talk about “conserving open space,” what does that mean — what does that look like?

For Triangle Land Conservancy, open space refers to land that is still able to provide those four public benefits: clean water, wildlife habitat, local farms and food, and places to connect with nature in significant quantities with minimal development. All of our projects have at least one of these four benefits, but most have more than one.

White Pines Nature Preserve for example is a forest of White Pine trees, rare for the area and an important habitat type. It also sits at the confluence of the Deep and Rocky rivers, and has trails and a canoe launch so people can connect with nature. Harland’s Creek Farm northwest of Pittsboro was put under easement last year; it has an organic farm and historic farm structures on site and a rare natural community with important habitat for salamanders and other species. When properties such as these are conserved, the features that contribute to those four benefits are permanently protected, and Triangle Land Conservancy becomes their guardians.

Properties that TLC conserves “fee simple” are owned and managed by TLC to maximize our public benefits, whether by being open to the public like White Pines Nature Preserve, or being kept private and available for wildlife or partners like Irvin Learning Farm where Transplanting Traditions and Learning Outside operate. TLC also holds conservation easements on more than 150 properties that are still privately owned but permanently conserved. A conservation easement runs with the land and permanently limits some uses, such as subdivision and the location and size of any further construction, but allows the landowner to continue to own and manage the property as they see fit. On these properties you might see a forest, a farm, a home or all of these and more.

What is your role at TLC?

As the Land Protection Manager, I meet with landowners interested in conservation options for their properties and explore funding opportunities to save more land for tomorrow. I cover projects in Durham, Orange, Chatham and Lee counties and help manage the Good Ground Initiative.

Can you talk about work you and TLC have done in Chatham County, and what other work is planned for our area?

Since our start in 1983, TLC has conserved more than 6,300 acres of land in Chatham County, including about 3,200 acres in conservation easements. Much of our work lately in Chatham has centered around agriculture and conserving working farms.

I am currently working on closing an easement on a 265-acre working farm, which will be our third Chatham working lands easement in as many years. Part of our farm focus reflects the importance of farming to Chatham’s rural character and the well-established agricultural community, especially in the Silk Hope region. An even bigger reason though is the availability of grant funding for conservation of working family farms.

TLC does not currently have sufficient funds to purchase conservation easements or land independently, and most landowners are not in a financial position to be able to donate the full value of their land or easement — so we must seek outside funding sources to make these projects happen.

Currently, in Chatham County, there is no source of local conservation funding. Instead, we compete with projects across North Carolina for funding, including from the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust. With Chatham’s diversity of small farms and prime soils, our projects in the county have been very competitive, but with local funding could be even more so. We do also have active applications with the N.C. Land and Water Fund for acquisitions that would provide significant habitat protections and possibilities for recreation. We are also supporting the Haw River Trail’s efforts to conserve land and trail access and working with the Conservation Fund to create an updated conservation strategy along the Deep and Rocky River corridors.

Protecting sources of drinking water is one of TLC’s objectives. How do you go about doing that, and why is that particular work becoming more challenging?

TLC focuses on protecting the land that naturally filters drinking water. If you think about water that runs into a stream from a parking lot or driveway, versus water that enters a stream through a forest, there are fewer impurities entering waterways from more natural settings.

Everywhere is downstream from somewhere, and the more forests and buffers there are upstream, the cleaner our downstream water is going to be when it gets to our reservoirs. By acquiring properties or conservation easements on land that has streams leading to drinking water sources, we protect the natural process that filters water. This saves money for municipalities who are tasked with providing clean water for their citizens, so several of them have invested in encouraging conservation in their watersheds.

Raleigh and Durham have both adopted watershed protection programs to conserve land in the Upper Neuse River Basin. Since 2005, Raleigh water users have generated over $15 million for watershed protection via a volumetric fee that costs most residential households about $.60 per month. Triangle Land Conservancy and other conservation partners in the area have leveraged that investment to conserve over 11,000 acres of land and more than 117 miles of streams within this critical water supply watershed and unique recreation areas like our Brumley Forest Nature Preserve.

In hopes of replicating this success, TLC collaborated with the Triangle J Council of Governments and Jordan Lake One Water to develop a conservation strategy for the Jordan Lake Watershed where 70% of the land is open space, but 92% of it is unprotected.

Chatham is known as a rural county with incredible natural beauty. But it’s also one of North Carolina’s fastest-growing, and that growth is coming from development — both industrial and residential. What challenges and opportunities does that present for you?

Chatham is certainly at a crossroads, and I have found it very encouraging how often people cite the rural character and natural beauty of Chatham as what drew them to the area or what they are intent on preserving. With the growth and development has come a heightened interest in conservation, especially from landowners seeking to do their part and ensure that the lands that they love and manage will continue to provide natural benefits to their communities. In order to turn these good intentions into permanently conserved open spaces, a locally sustained funding source is needed to invest in conserving the lands that Chatham values most.

In other counties TLC works in, the two most effective sources of funding have been watershed protection funds and county bonds or appropriations for open space. Wake County has dedicated almost $200 million to Parks and Open Space though several bonds and despite being the second most populous county in the state is well on its way to achieving 30% conservation of open space.

Several other local counties including Alamance, and most recently Johnston, at $625,000, have dedicated general appropriations for farm easements and acquisitions. TLC is nearly always able to match these local funds one to one, in the Neuse Watershed we and our partners have leveraged municipal investment to a ratio of seven to one. As development comes to the area, so does an influx of resources and opportunities to invest strategically in quality of life and environment, while so many of those resources are still available for protection.

TLC is involved in education, which you engage in through your preserves, student programs and in-person events. Can you share more about those?

TLC offers events year-round to encourage people to get outside and learn about conservation and the wild and working lands of our area. These programs range from hikes, birding, mindfulness, family field trips, to citizen science and volunteer opportunities. We regularly communicate about these opportunities and the latest developments in our work via our e-newsletters and print publications sent to our members. Registration for events and information can be found at our website

We were also very excited to launch the Pathways Into Natural Environments and Science (PINES) Fellowship Program. TLC knows that we have a role in creating opportunities to increase diversity in the environmental profession. Lack of racial diversity in environmental organizations is a well-documented problem and one that TLC must actively address if we are to reflect the communities we serve and fulfill our promise of protecting land forever. In conjunction with Knightdale High School, TLC developed the PINES Fellowship to open pathways of opportunity for a diverse group of high school students in the field of conservation and natural resources. Through weekly meetings all spring, Fellows are learning about career opportunities in conservation, building relationships with TLC staff, board members, and environmental professionals, as well as learning about conservation through immersive experiences.

What else do Chatham County residents need to know about TLC’s work?

We believe land conservation can be a tool for community benefit and are eager to utilize it as such. People may be interested to learn about the Good Ground Initiative, which uses the conservation tools addressed above to aid in farm transition and create land ownership opportunities for people of color.

Our webinar series, Conservation Conversations, is a great way to dig deeper on a lot of our work.

We are always happy to talk with residents interested in ways to get involved, or seeking to learn more about conservation options.


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