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Protecting the plateau

A group takes an HCLT EcoTour in Whiteside Cove with view of Whiteside Mountain. Donated photo A group takes an HCLT EcoTour in Whiteside Cove with view of Whiteside Mountain. Donated photo

Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust welcomes new director

 For the first time in its 114-year history, the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust is saying goodbye to a full-time executive director and welcoming a new one. Gary Wein, who was hired as HCLT’s first full-time employee in 2006, is retiring after nearly 17 years of service. Lance Hardin, who previously served as the organization’s finance and development associate, took over Wein’s old job May 1. 

Originally from Tidewater, Virginia, Hardin, 57, has lived most of his adult life in Raleigh but continually returned to Highlands for vacations, living and enrolling his children in school there 2006-2008 during a period of remote work. After spending three decades working for “Big Four” accounting firm Ernst & Young, Hardin went back to school, earning a master’s degree in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University.

“People asked me then, ‘What are you going to do with this combination of accounting background, financial background and kind of a deep dive on Appalachian culture?”’ and I said, ‘If the stars aligned, I'd love to work in land conservation, and I'd love to be doing it in Macon County,’” Hardin said. “So it really in some respects is kind of a dream come true that the stars did align.”

In 2021, Hardin and his wife Gwyn moved back to Highlands and embarked on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. They made it as far as Massachusetts before an ankle injury took them off the trail and then returned to Western North Carolina, where Hardin began working with HCLT in 2022.  He interned there in 2020.

Mitigating man

Hardin’s career with HCLT began as Wein contemplated ending his. The timing felt right. When Wein joined HCLT in 2006, the organization had conserved fewer than 1,000 acres in its nearly 100 years of existence. Now, that number is nearing 4,000.

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Gary Wein has retired after nearly 17 years leading HCLT. Donated photo

“I feel good about where the land trust is and can retire knowing that HCLT is equipped to handle the conservation challenges that lie ahead,” Wein said. “I am leaving the organization in very good hands.”

Wein and Hardin bring vastly different backgrounds to the task of conserving land on the Highlands-Cashiers plateau. Wein holds a Ph.D. in botany and had a career in academia before leading HCLT, and while serving as the organization’s executive director he continued as an adjunct at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and on the graduate faculty at Western Carolina University. Further back, Wein was a ranger at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, where he acquired a love of working with children. Over the years, he has accrued vast experience in wetlands restoration, landscape ecology and natural history.

Hardin comes to conservation from an entirely different angle than Wein’s ecology-oriented background.

“I really enjoy focusing on man's involvement with the outdoors and man's mark on the land,” he said. “People think that we've got pristine wilderness, but really, there's very little of Western North Carolina that hasn't been influenced by man, and so understanding that, what's good about that, what needs to be mitigated about that, has always really interested me.”

Hardin’s interest in the region’s cultural history is apparent in the thesis he wrote for his master’s degree, examining how the Fontana Dam project impacted the people of North Shore. For that project, he interviewed displaced families and turned a critical eye to Tennessee Valley Authority statistics claiming that Swain County people were economically better off after the dam project. That held true, he found, only when factoring in the single men who had moved from dam to dam to work on TVA projects, of which Fontana was one of the last. Many of them were able to save enough money to buy a house in Swain County after the Fontana project ended, but displaced locals were overwhelmingly worse off than before.

In addition to protecting natural habitats and viewsheds, Hardin said he wants to prioritize conservation of cultural resources that tell the “incredible” human history of the mountain region. 

Where finance meets conservation

Hardin will also bring an expertise in finance, administration and tax laws that is indispensable in land conservation efforts. Conservation easement and conservation purchase deals are complex arrangements that can take years to complete. Success depends not only on a willing landowner, but also on funding the purchase or easement price as well as any necessary appraisals, surveys and legal documents — and on an accurate understanding of tax laws, ensuring property owners have the highest possible incentive to protect their land from development.

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­­Lance Hardin, formerly HCLT’s finance and development associate, is the organization’s new executive director. Donated photo­­Lance Hardin, formerly HCLT’s finance and development associate, is the organization’s new executive director. Donated photo

“Saving land takes resources,” Hardin said. “It takes money, it takes an understanding of the legal process, it takes an understanding of risk, and so that's what I certainly bring.”

In the future, Hardin expects those skills to become more important than ever. As in communities throughout Western North Carolina, property values on the plateau have skyrocketed since the pandemic’s arrival, ratcheting up the challenge for land trusts like HCLT.

“It's a very challenging time to be doing what we're doing, and the need has never been greater to be out there on the forefront, be very strategic about identifying the properties that we need to, and really going after them like we maybe haven’t had to in the past,” Hardin said.

The land trust considers multiple factors when deciding whether to pursue a conservation project. These include biodiversity, water resources, recreation value, cultural resources and whether development on the property would impact beloved views. Prioritizing projects requires careful thought and property-by-property analysis.

HCLT is just one of many land trusts working to protect WNC forests, meadows and farmland from development. One of those organizations, Mainspring Conservation Trust, is headquartered just down the mountain in Franklin. Hardin said that, while HCLT has a “collegial” relationship with other area land trusts, it has a unique mission. It exists specifically to protect properties on and around the plateau, which are often smaller and more expensive per acre than projects other land trusts are likely to take on.

“There's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes, whether it's appraisals, it's working with the landowner, it's helping them work with their financial advisors, it's surveying, it's doing the benchmark studies that document why their property should be preserved, and that's the same for any size property,” Hardin said. “We're predominantly southern Macon and Jackson County, and just the property values are such that we can afford, or the landowners can afford, to do that analysis of net worth for a much smaller property.”

It's important work, Hardin said, and as “unprecedented” growth continues on the plateau, the clock is ticking. New houses go up every day, often on steep hillsides that most people had assumed would never be economically viable for construction.

“The passion,” he said, “is about conserving what makes this area so special.”   

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