Saturday, February 4, 2023

North Carolina Coastal Land Trust celebrates 25 years of preserving the future

A couple paddles down the serene Waccamaw River. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Christine Ellis)
Paddlers taking advantage of an area of the Waccamaw River, protected by the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY NC COASTAL LAND TRUST)

WILMINGTON — Over the course of the last quarter century, the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust has been working quietly, but continually, behind the scenes to protect and preserve unique areas along the coast of the Tar Heel State.

The conservation organization works with private landowners, organizations and the government to identify lands with cultural, natural, or historically significant value, to protect them from future development and preserve them for generations to come.

According to Executive Director Camilla Herlevich, this includes just over 69,000 acres of land, with several thousand being added this summer alone.

“The coastal land trust is a land conservation organization that is focused solely on saving land in the coastal plain in North Carolina,” she said. “As a conservation organization, we actually buy land, we accept donations of land, and it’s always land that has special natural value. Forest land, or barrier islands, land along rivers, or lands that have gardens or historic areas.”

Some of these lands include places like the Brunswick Nature Park, the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden, Bird Island, Lee Island, and even Airlie Gardens.

A ‘realistic’ approach to conservation

While the Coastal Land Trust might not own these lands outright, they’ve worked in some way on each of them, using “realistic” techniques, and tax law to their advantage.

“It’s different, and you know one of the things that is great about it from my standpoint is that everybody loves what we do,” she said. “So, we are never fighting against anybody, we are not advocating for regulations that restrict what people can do with their land. We actually work with landowners, corporations, with people of all political persuasions. We only work with willing sellers, we don’t ever condemn land or do anything like that.

“We work in the real estate market place to acquire property for conservation purposes. And that’s lovely, everybody loves land, everybody loves nature, and everybody loves parks. So, it’s a really fabulous technique to save nature.”

Using a conservation tool called a “conservation easement,” the group is able to protect large tracts of land at a time, without necessarily taking on the upkeep themselves.

For example, after writing a grant proposal to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund addressing the importance of the area along Lea Island, in Pender County, the group was able to secure funding to purchase the rights to the land, in cooperation with the Audubon Society, ensuring it would remain pristine, and undeveloped.

"Airlie Gardens is obviously owned by New Hanover County, and that’s another tract of land that we never actually had title too, but again helped with the negotiations," Herlevich said. "We commissioned one of the appraisals for the property, we helped write a grant to bring a couple of million dollars from the clean water management trust fund to New Hanover County for its purchase of the property, and that’s now one of the most popular places around."
‘Airlie Gardens is obviously owned by New Hanover County, and that’s another tract of land that we never actually had title too, but again helped with the negotiations,’ Herlevich said. ‘We commissioned one of the appraisals for the property, we helped write a grant to bring a couple of million dollars from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to New Hanover County for its purchase of the property, and that’s now one of the most popular places around.’ (Port City Daily photo / FILE PHOTO)

The Land Trust was then able to transfer the island to the state, which turned the area into a wildlife sanctuary, bringing Audubon in to manage the nesting bird habitat.

“It’s like restrictive covenants, they are perpetual, and basically the land owners give up those rights as a donation, or in some cases, we are actually able to purchase those rights, and the end result is that the land can stay in private ownership,” she said. “It can be sold, it can be left to your children. But, the development rights, those restrictions go with the land, whoever owns them.”

Although often times these lands remain private, Herlevich said that since the group often uses money from public trusts, they try to open spaces like the Brunswick Nature Park, for everyone to use.

What’s next?

Looking ahead, the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust has big plans, with intentions to grow and become even more involved in their conservation efforts.

The first step? “Site X,” an area of Bertie County steeped in history, as well as nature.

“Oh my goodness, I think it’s the most amazing thing we’ve ever done,” she said.

With bottom-land hardwood forests, considered by the North Carolina Heritage Program to be nationally significant, old farm fields, and frontage on Salmon Creek, she said this 1,000 acre area is a natural work of art.

But, there’s more to this land than meets the eye. According to Herlevich, early surveys indicate pre-Colonial American artifacts, and possibly the location of one of the state’s greatest mysteries, the Lost Colony.

Herlevich said that several years ago, a group called the First Colony Foundation began investigating maps from John White, the governor of the colony in the 1500s.

Archaeological studies have indicated people, possibly from the Lost Colony, were in the area of ‘Site X’ around the time the Colony went missing. (Port City Daily photo / CORY MANNION)

Information gained from this map indicated the colonists had a contingency plan to potentially relocate to “Site X” in the event of an emergency, which is further backed by state archaeologists, who’ve found pottery dating back to a very specific period, and style, indicative of the late 1500s.

Seeing the significance of this land, the trust acquired a $4.85 million dollar loan to secure the property, which once paid off, will be donated to the State Parks Department to become the new Salmon Creek Natural Area.

While taking a loan was not something the group was used to doing, it’s a risk it’s willing to take as the group looks to spread its reach, working to inspire others through its work.

“We are moving forward in a really big way. The trend we are wrestling with right now is that there is less and less money from the state in the Clean Water Management Trust Fund,” she said. “So, what we would like to do is something more than just save a ‘Site X’ every 25 years. And I don’t mean to be flip, obviously we’ve been doing more than that.

“But we really want to double our impact, and we want to be able to act in the marketplace,” she said. “One of the things we’ve seen with ‘Site X’ is that when we can act quickly, we can buy land for a lot less money, because we can bring cash to the table.”

To those ends, she said that the Coastal Land Trust plans to “ramp up” private fundraising, to increase their flexibility in the marketplace, allowing it to protect more lands.

Celebrating 25 years

Kicking off this effort, and in celebration of 25 years of conservation, the group will be holding two parties, one in Poplar Grove, and the other in New Bern, offering a “magical” evening with catered meals, lawn games, live music, and more.

“We’ll have great food and drink, and sort of just want to raise a glass to toast the coast and the efforts of all the individual members who have made this organization possible,” she said.

The first, held at Poplar Grove Plantation, will be held this Saturday, Sept. 23, and features hayrides to the nearby Abbey Nature Preserve, an area surrounding the plantation under easement from the Land Trust.

The second will be held in New Bern the following week on Sept. 30.

There is a suggested donation of $55 per adult to attend, and children under 12 are free. For more information on the events, or to register to attend, visit the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust website at, and follow them on Facebook for the latest updates.

“I think things are just getting started for the Coastal Land Trust,” Herlevich said. “I think the next 25 years are going to be even more ambitious, we’re going to be doing more projects, and having a real visible impact.”

Get in touch with Reporter Cory Mannion: follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or send an email at

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