A decade ago, Kieran Roe sealed and stamped an envelope and dropped it in the mail. What he got back proved to be far beyond his expectations.
“I couldn't have fathomed everything that would come from it,” said Roe, executive director of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC). Roe’s envelope contained a grant application to the Corporation for National and Community Service with a proposal to initiate Project Conserve, a new AmeriCorps program in western North Carolina.
“We were still a fledgling land trust. We only had a few staff and we needed help,” recalled Roe.
AmeriCorps was created under President Bill Clinton by the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. The program— often billed as a domestic version of the Peace Corps–engages adults in intensive community service with the goal of helping others and meeting critical community needs.
Members within AmeriCorps commit to part- or full-time public service positions among non-profit community organizations and public agencies. The proposal that Roe submitted was to establish positions to fulfill environmental and conservation needs in the region.
Roe’s application proved successful, and Project Conserve was born, hosting its first members in 2004.
“It started small,” said Project Conserve Director Amy Stout, who was hired to administer the CMLC program in 2008.
“Only ten members made up the first class. But it grew quickly.”
Within only a few years, AmeriCorps Project Conserve hosted more than 30 full-time service members across nearly two dozen organizations in western North Carolina. Each Project Conserve member serves 1,700 total hours over an 11-month term.
“Members receive a small living stipend as well as an education award that can be applied to existing student loans or used to pursue future studies,” said Stout. “The pay isn’t significant, but they’re driven by a burning desire to make a difference in their community.”
Making a difference, in fact, is what has defined the program. Since CMLC initiated Project Conserve a decade ago, nearly 200 AmeriCorps members have completed service terms. Their collective contribution has exceeded an astonishing 410,000 hours of public service to western North Carolina communities.
Currently, Project Conserve places 32 service members at more than 21 different environment and conservation organizations across the region spanning more than 20 counties.
CMLC hosts five Project Conserve members each year. Other host sites include Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Mountain True, Polk County Office of Agricultural Economic Development, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, among others.
“Each AmeriCorps Project Conserve position is unique, but they are united by two long-term goals: to build greater community awareness and support for conservation and to make sustainable improvements to at-risk natural areas in western North Carolina,” said Stout.
Project Conserve takes a holistic approach to conservation by incorporating the interconnected focuses of land conservation, water quality, local food, and energy conservation.
“To support our goals in these areas, Project Conserve positions are centered around key service activities. These include Conservation Education, where members coordinate educational activities for youth and adults designed to increase participants’ awareness of conservation issues, inspire them to get involved further, and build valuable conservation skills,” added Stout.
To date, Project Conserve members have educated more than 45,000 adults and youth about environmental and conservation issues in WNC.
Direct service on rivers, trails and public lands is another goal of the program where service members create and improve publically accessible trails to provide more recreational opportunities for the community. Its AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 5,000 hours of service in support of CMLC’s budding Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail network alone.
“And because volunteers multiply the impact of Project Conserve members and build community support in the region, volunteer engagement is one of our most important service goals,” said Stout. “Members recruit and coordinate community volunteers for conservation projects like water quality monitoring, habitat restoration, and invasive species removal.”
Project Conserve members have recruited 5,200 volunteers who served 28,400 additional hours to benefit local conservation projects.
“I’m pleased that CMLC’s benefit to our community hasn’t been limited to only a few counties. The program has reached all of western North Carolina,” said Roe when reflecting back upon the impact of Project Conserve. “Each day you hope that something you do will leave the region better than it was the day before. I think Project Conserve did that, and continues to do that every day.”
While Project Conserve members’ contribution to our region is obvious, its impact on those who serve has proven profound as well. The program has also succeeded in cultivating burgeoning conservationists—many whom remain in the region and continue to positively affect it for years after their initial service ends.
“I wouldn’t be here without Project Conserve,” said Tom Fanslow, CMLC’s land protection director. “Like it has done for so many, the AmeriCorps program gave me the opportunity to get my foot in the door of conservation in WNC.” Under Fanslow’s helm, CMLC has protected more than 18,000 acres of land since he joined the organization as an AmeriCorps member in 2004.
Fanslow is far from the only member of Project Conserve to springboard to a permanent career in conservation. Seven of CMLC’s fourteen full-time staff are Project Conserve alumni.
“In addition to public service toward our region, Project Conserve also gives members field and office experience, which helps them refine their interests and guide the next steps of their careers,” said Kristen Lee, Project Conserve Program Coordinator and former AmeriCorps service member at CMLC.
In total, 32 AmeriCorps alumni are currently employed by a Project Conserve host site.
Few others have the perspective of John Humphrey to assess the magnitude of the CMLC’s array of contributions to the community since the land trust’s founding 20 years ago. In addition to donating the organization’s first-ever conservation easement, he served as an early board president and presided over hiring its first full-time staff member.
“We’ve saved almost 30,000 acres of land,” said Humphrey. “Helped created a state park and two state forests. Saved a rare plant from the brink of extinction.”
“But Project Conserve may be the best thing that we’ve ever done,” he concluded. “The amount of talent and passion that this program has brought to conservation in our region is staggering. Look how many of these folks stick around and continue to do good things for years into the future.”
“Project Conserve isn’t just impacting those whom it serves among our region. For those who serve, it’s changing their lives, too.”
AmeriCorps Project Conserve is administered by CMLC and funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the North Carolina Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, and the critical support of its host sites and community partners.
Since Project Conserve's start in 2004:
- 410,000 hours of service have been completed in WNC
- 196 members have completed 11-month service terms
- 30 members have served 2 terms of service
- 40 environmental and conservation organizations have been involved in hosting members
- 32 Project Conserve alumni are now employed by host sites
- 45,000 people have been educated about environmental and conservation issues
- 5,200 volunteers have been recruited who have served 28,400 hours