“Going Big” For Conservation: 59th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards Banquet Highlights

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Conservation for the good of North Carolina wildlife takes a community of people who (in the words of banquet emcee and award chair T. Edward Nickens) “go big” for wildlife. And the 59th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet was just the place to honor 18 notable individuals and groups who have done just that.

Nearly 300 people gathered on Sept. 9 at the Embassy Suites in Cary to hear uplifting stories of conservation heroes in their quests to learn more, do more, protect more, work hard and fight harder for North Carolina’s wild lives and wild places. 

First presented in 1958, the Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards are the highest natural resource honors given in the state. The annual program brings together diverse conservationists to highlight wildlife conservation achievements and inspire others to take a more active role in protecting North Carolina’s natural resources for future generations.

“It’s always one of our favorite events of the year – a chance to celebrate the beauty of nature and the shared commitment of those working every day to protect, conserve and restore North Carolina’s wildlife, habitat and natural resources,” said Tim Gestwicki, NCWF CEO. “This year’s honorees are helping ensure we sustainably manage our state’s bountiful flora and fauna for future generations – North Carolinians who demonstrate promise and possibility while making great strides in preserving unique ecosystems and species.”

NCWF Board Chair Steve Jester and Deputy Secretary Jeff Michael with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources presented honorees with custom-made wildlife statuettes.

Below we share highlights from T. Edward Nickens’ presentation of the awardees.

Derb S. Carter, Jr. , Conservation Hall of Fame

“Derb Carter is senior advisor and attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, and he’s been there since 1989. Before that, he worked for the National Wildlife Federation and the U.S Department of the Interior. It was those experiences that helped shape his brand and approach to conservation negotiation and litigation. And it’s been an approach with fantastic results.

Derb was instrumental in stopping a 36,000-acre corporate farming project and 35,000 acre peat mining project in eastern North Carolina, lands that now form the backbone of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. He was instrumental in establishing Alligator National Wildlife Refuge and the red wolf reintroduction program. He has led or has been significantly involved in many lawsuits filed on behalf of public trust waters, marine resources, and wetlands protection. Most recently he has challenged the expansion of wood pellet facilities in the South – and particularly in North Carolina, a tragedy that is wiping out critical bottomland hardwood forests in the crown jewels of the Roanoke River and other critical bottomland wilds.

Honestly, that’s just scratching the surface. Carter has a command of environmental law unmatched in the state. He has a love of North Carolina’s wilds that he will put up against anyone’s. I think it’s fair to say that he has rewritten the playbook on how large-scale conservation work gets done in the South, by leveling the playing field with legal chops that have won him and SELC respect in corporate and public utility boardrooms across the region.

For more than 30 years, a grateful conservation community has had an ace in the hole. Don’t make us call Derb Carter. The Wildlife Federation is for sure proud, however, to call him a friend – and invite him into the North Carolina Conservation Hall of Fame.”

Louis Bacon, Conservationist of the Year (Chapel Hill)

“Louis Bacon is working to restore NC landscapes to their original state, and is helping others do the same.

Bacon purchased the historic Orton Plantation in 2010 and has nearly doubled its size, and donated conservation easements on 6,500 acres to the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. Orton staff now manages more than 15,000 acres for early successional habitat, longleaf pine, and wiregrass.

His Moore Charitable Foundation has provided significant conservation and land preservation funding to more than 250 local, national and international groups.

Bacon knows you can’t turn back time. The parakeets, the elk, and the bison of the primeval North Carolina Coastal Plain are long gone. But the desire to explore, document and share wonder in the natural world remains a powerful force for good. It’s what drives Louis Bacon to restore, to preserve, to reconnect, and to help others who share his passion for untrammeled landscapes. He is the 2023 Governor’s Conservationist of the Year.”

Wildlife Conservationist of the Year, Joe Madison (Manteo)

“Joe Madison doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff. As a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he has worked with California condors and sea turtles, and controversial species such as the gray wolf and grizzly bear. He knows what it takes to recover a large carnivore on the landscape—you have to bring back community trust as you bring back a beleaguered wild species. You have to manage people and communities just as much as habitat and genetic flow. And if you don’t think northeastern NC is as wild and wooly as the Rocky Mountain states, he’ll tell you that you’ve got another thing coming.

But since 2017, Madison’s thoughtful, transparent, community-based approach to red wolf restoration has transformed the program in eastern NC. He’s built trust with local landowners by building programs of habitat work on private lands in exchange for red wolf-friendly management practices. He’s initiated new research projects to reduce vehicle strike mortality and helped pioneer new practices to foster more successful wolf pup litters. In 2020 the population of red wolves was less than 20. Today, the population is nearly 35, with 13 red wolf pups in the mix. Many times, doing the right thing means doing the very hard thing, without any shortcuts. Madison’s formula for recovering the public trust as he recovers an endangered species is a blueprint for future conservation efforts in an increasingly peopled world. For that, he is the 2023 Governor’s Wildlife Conservationist of the Year.”

Sportsman of the Year, Joel McDaniel (Belhaven)

“In 2006, while he was a pastor in Raleigh, Joel started a non-profit organization called On His Terms Outfitters, an outreach program for kids who didn’t have access to hunting and fishing. It has been a loooong journey, but that organization by 2013 evolved into Operation Resolute, of which Joel is CEO. That group works with the chaplains of active duty Special Forces units in the Army, Air Force, and Marines to identify soldiers and families for outdoors-based outreach. Operation Resolute will roll into Morehead City and have a fleet of those big sportfishing charter boats on deck to take soldiers to the Gulf Stream.

Folks will donate their homes, food, gear and time for these soldiers – and Operation Resolute puts it all together. The group has relied on a few generous landowners over the years for its hunting trips, but recently purchased a 500-acre-tract in Hyde County as a new headquarters. They’ve hosted 235 events, reaching 7,000 military personnel and families. They provide marriage support weekends to help these families navigate the stresses of long, dangerous, and sometimes incommunicado deployments. They use the outdoors as a balm of healing and personal growth.

Now, Joel is partly right. He sure didn’t do it all on his own. What’s just as impressive is how a heartfelt and hardcore group of financial donors and advisors have rallied around this mission, as well – some of whom are here tonight. But don’t let Joel get away with it. He’s one of the most humble men I’ve ever met, and how he’s put up with my blowhard ways all these years I’ll never know. But I’ll never again wonder what a man can do when he puts his whole heart and soul into a singular mission… and drags his poor wife along every step of the way. Joel McDaniel is the 2023 Governor’s Sportsman of the Year.”

Land Conservationist of the Year, Haywood Rankin (Gastonia)

“For a quarter-century, Haywood Ranking has led an effort to preserve his family’s land as a preserve for its exquisite wild plants. The property is called Redlair, and it’s steep country, where the South Fork of the Catawba cuts between Spencer Mountain and the Catawba watershed divide. Steep, deep country, which kept the plow and the crosscut saw at bay. Fertile country, where big-leaf magnolia and the federally-endangered Schweinitz sunflower thrive. 

The family sold the property in 2014 to North Carolina’s Plant Conservation Program, where it now is a showcase of ecological integrity in a part of the state where the natural fabric is more frequently a bit tattered and worn. Rankin’s long war on invasive plants is one reason Redlair is held in such high esteem. 

He knows that you can’t draw a circle on a map and say your work is done. His efforts to remove invasives and protect native species have been heralded across the conservation sphere in North Carolina, and his family’s astute stewardship of their gift, which came with a foundation for long-term preservation of the property, has set a gold standard.

Or a red standard. Haywood Rankin’s mother, Jean, named their property “Redlair” because her husband and all five of their children sported a red topknot. Haywood was seven years old when the family moved to the farm, and thankfully, this red-headed apple didn’t fall far from the tree. The Piedmont of North Carolina is a better place for that. And Haywood Rankin is the 2023 Governor’s Land Conservationist of the Year.”

Water Conservationist of the Year, Pat Donovan-Brandenburg (Jacksonville)

“In nominating Pat for this award, Rocky Carter wrote that “Pat never saw the challenges, only the opportunities, in making her dream come to fruition by overseeing the design, permitting, and funding of the nationally recognized New River Oyster Highway Project.” 

When you think about it, shucking an oyster, and holding that thing, and looking closely at it, thinking: “Hmmmm, wonder what it would be like if I put that thing in my mouth…”  is all about seeing the opportunity, not the challenge.

Donovan-Brandenburg’s CV is about forty-eleven pages long, but the gist of it is this: Since January 2009 she has served as the Stormwater, Soil and Erosion Control Manager and CAMA Officer for the city of Jacksonville. This means she obsesses over every raindrop that falls in her beloved city and ultimately makes it to her beloved Wilson Bay of the New River. Whether that drop of rain makes it back to the natural environment clean and clear or defiled and dirtied up is her business and it’s a serious one.

But back to that oyster thing. Under her guidance and leadership—what other folks have called “mule-headedness” and “holy- moley-is-it-Pat-and-that-oyster-thing-again”—the oyster highway now includes a dozen water-cleaning oyster reefs and people have a new appreciation for how miraculous a simple filter-feeding bivalve can be.

Pat Donovan-Brandenburg is the 2023 Governor’s Water Conservationist of the Year.”

Forest Conservationist of the Year, Mavis Gragg (Durham)

“There is much talk in the conservation community about our roles as legacy keepers, and the notion that we have inherited natural resources from earlier generations, and take it as a duty to pass to next generations a world wilder and more whole. Mavis Gragg knows firsthand how fraught is that expectation.

After she and her family lost most of their family wealth due to land inheritance issues, she began exploring innovative strategies and tools to help meet the steep challenges heirs face in family real estate ownership. She founded HeirShares, a company building groundbreaking technology to facilitate affordable solutions in the realm of land inheritance. By educating families that own farms and other lands, and with a focus on giving African-American landowners the tools to navigate the legal landscape, Gragg is helping to stem the loss of family farms and Black-owned farms across the Southeast. But that is only a part of her journey. Gragg is also an attorney at the American Forest Foundation, where she serves as director of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program.

She is a member and past chair of the board of directors of the Triangle Land Conservancy, chair of the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Authority, and board member of the North Carolina Conservation Network. Gragg is an advocate and attorney, and an arts enthusiast and arts patron, serving on the North Carolina Museum of the Arts Foundation Board.

She has spent her career caring for the wholeness of the undeveloped landscape. Mavis Gragg is the 2023 Governor’s Forest Conservationist of the Year.”

Environmental Educator of the Year, Terri McLeod (Cary) 

“For Terri McLeod, the nickname “Frog Lady” is a point of honor and a badge of pride, as it should be.

McLeod is the K-5 STEM specialist at Kingswood Elementary Magnet School in Cary, where she has spread a contagious love for environmental education that you can literally hear in the hallways. Her kids affectionately call her, The Scientist, The Native Plant Lady, and yes, The Frog Lady.

To say she has made her mark at Kingswood is an understatement. From planting native seeds to removing non-native invasive plants, and building pumpkin patches and pollinator plots, McLeod helps her students learn just how much fun it can be to take care of the natural world around them.

She has served or is serving as chair of the school’s Green Team, is president of the Wild Ones’ Carolina Chapter, led an effort to get Kingswood to compost almost all of its cafeteria waste, and has presented programs at the NC Science Teacher Association, the Cullawhee Native Plant Conference, and the STEM Magnet Fair of the WAKE County Public Schools Program.

“But her biggest accomplishments,” wrote her award nominator, “cannot be captured on paper. You must feel her energy and her spirit, and experience her enthusiastic freedom for reaching all students from diverse educational and economic backgrounds to get their hands in nature.”

That’s the way The Frog Lady rolls, and we’re stoked to name her the 2023 Governor’s Environmental Educator of the Year.”

Young Conservationist of the Year, Lauren D. Pharr (Raleigh)

“In 2021, Pharr graduated with her masters at NCSU, with a thesis studying the effects of urban noise and light pollution on avian survival. She’s now a PhD student at NCSU, researching climate change impacts on a federally endangered bird species, the Red- cockaded Woodpecker.

And in her spare three minutes a week, she sits on multiple committees dedicated to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at NCState – and last summer, she and a colleague formed a non-profit called Field Inclusive, which seeks to amplify and support marginalized and historically excluded biologists and researchers. It’s an outlet focusing on opening up opportunities in science across race, gender, LGBTQ+ populations, and people with disabilities. Sponsors include the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, North Carolina Sea Grant, Cape Fear Bird Observatory and Wilson Ornithological Society. And Field Inclusive has already been able to award 2 research grants, and 1 fellowship to minority individuals. 

All of this, she insists, isn’t to elevate her own status, but to elevate the idea of science to those who she wants to understand that STEM is a place for them to be successful as well. 

Lauren Pharr is the 2023 Governor’s Young Conservationist of the Year.”

Conservation Organization of the Year, EcoForesters (Asheville)

“EcoForesters’ mission is to empower forest stewardship by making sustainable forestry work for everyone—the landowner, the timber cutter, me, you, the trout in the stream adjacent to the timber tract, the rough grouse drumming in the thicket below the ridgetop. 

Since 2015, EcoForesters has partnered with private landowners, Land Trusts, the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians, the US and North Carolina Forest services, and conservation resource professionals to help make healthy forests by making two things happen concurrently: forest owners make a profit, and forests turn out healthier than before. Ecological Forestry, they call it. We call it: “It’s about time folks understand that a haircut isn’t the same as a shaved head.” And that properly managed, science-based timber harvest has to be a part of the planning process for a greener world. 

EcoForesters is the Governor’s Conservation Organization of the Year.

Legislator of the Year, Representative Kyle Hall (King)

“Hall grew up in Stokes County and, as chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, he has advocated strongly for conservation initiatives, park funding, and access to North Carolina’s natural resources. 

He sponsored legislation to designate the Dan River—a Stokes County jewel—as a State Trail, and has supported efforts to build canoe and kayak access sites and expand the Mayo River State Park by nearly 1,000 acres.

2023 is officially designated as the Year of the Trail in North Carolina, a time to celebrate all the hiking trails, greenways, paddle trails, and bike routes that sample the North Carolina wilds. It seems like an appropriate time to name someone like Kyle Hall the Governor’s Legislator of the Year.”

Business Conservationist of the Year, Atlantic Packaging (Wilmington)

“A few years back, when Atlantic Packaging’s president Wes Carter looked in the corporate mirror, he saw something he didn’t exactly like seeing: His industry was playing a significant role in the growing problem of plastics pollution. It happened incrementally, over time, just like a KitKat bar every now and then three times a day can help pack on the pounds. So Carter put his company on a plastics diet. 

Through its Zero-Waste Program and TRUE Zero-Waste Certification programs, Atlantic Packaging is cutting the amount of material it uses. Atlantic Packaging became the first packaging company in North America and one of the few NC companies to have an approved net-zero target for greenhouse gas emissions through the Science-Basted Targets Initiative. And the company is working with its customers from Anheuser Busch to Bass Pro/Cabela’s to transition their packaging to more sustainable alternatives. And honestly, those are just two of an impressive roster of proactive programs Atlantic Packaging is taking to address the mounting packing crisis. 

Wes Carter is an avid surfer, so it’s no surprise that coastal initiatives form the backbone of many Atlantic Packaging environmental programs. What is a welcome surprise is that a North Carolina company is taking the lead on such a difficult and growing problem. Atlantic Packaging is the 2023 Business Conservationist of the Year.”

Natural Resources Scientist of the Year, Travis Wilson (Creedmoor)

“Wilson is the Eastern Highway Project Coordinator of the Habitat Conservation Division of the Wildlife Resources Commission, and a leading thinker on the topic of wildlife passage. That’s a subject of increasing importance as more roads are being built, widened, plotted and planned.

Wilson’s ingenious use of remote cameras has captured thousands of images of wildlife species crossing county roads, interstates, and city avenues, leading to new thinking about how the chicken…. Or snake….crosses the road, leading as well to new possibilities for conservation.

Recently, Wilson’s work led to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission and the NC Department of Transportation signing a Memorandum of Understanding to improve wildlife crossing of roads and highways across the state.

He is the 2023 Governor’s Natural Resources Scientist of the Year.”

Wildlife Volunteer of the Year, Monty Morée (Holly Springs)

“Morée serves as president of South Wake Conservationists… and the key word there is “serve.”

He volunteers hundreds of hours each year to lead and organize an incredible range of outdoor education projects. The Eco Kids Program through which hundreds of children and their familes learn about wildlife and conservation? Morée created that. A Kids in Nature Day with nearly 1,000 participants? Morée was on the job. He leads kayak trips. He helps with nighttime moth discovery field trips. He’ll yank an invasive plant from the ground like nobody’s business. He’s the guy at the info table at the state fair, EarthFest, Arbor Day and more. He’s worked to improve South Wake Conservationists programs from deer hunting outreach to pollinator garden improvement.

And he does all of this with a humble, friendly demeanor that can’t help but make you think, on your way to the recycling bin… maybe I could be just a little bit more like Monty Morée.

Honestly, we should all think about that tonight. Monty Morée is the 2023 Governor’s Wildlife Volunteer of the Year.”

Public Lands Conservationist of the Year, Brandon Jones (Fontana Dam)

“Jones is the marina operator and harbormaster at Fontana Village Resort and Marina, one of the most gorgeous natural areas in the state, up against the soaring ridgeline of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Five years ago, Jones started a trash cleanup that has now turned into the largest cleanup on national park lands in the entire country. In just one November weekend last year, more than 100 volunteers went out in boats and came back with 55,000 pounds of trash.

Now a collaborative event with groups such as the Wildlife Federation and Mainspring Conservation Trust, the cleanup has removed nearly a quarter-million pounds of trash so far. I promise you, if you were on Brandon Jones’ boat and you threw an orange peel overboard, you would regret it for at least as long as it would take you to swim back to the dock.

For his efforts to keep the Great Smokies clean and green, Jones is the 2023 Governor’s Public Lands Conservationist of the Year.”

NCWF Chapter of the Year, MARSH (Marvin Area for the Restoration and Sustainability of Wildlife Habitat) (Marvin)

“On one day – February 25, 2023 – more than 30 volunteers with MARSH, the Marvin Area for the Restoration and Sustainability of Wildlife Habitat, removed and recycled more than 19,450 pounds worth of old tires from the McBride Branch wetlands. Insanity. 20,000 tires, were dumped near Sixmile Creek, which runs into Twelvemile Creek, which runs into the Catawba River. A mountain of tires. A mountain of pure sorry and selfishness.

But, on the other hand, some people can’t just stand by and see such a thing and not get to fixing it. Which is what those MARSH volunteers did. And their work on behalf of wildlife and habitat goes beyond moving mountains of tires. 

Over the last year, they have certified more than 50 new wildlife habitats, offered a 2-month gardening for wildlife workshop, and put together tree plantings in seven different schools.

Under the leadership of Kristyna Culp, MARSH has cleaned up, greened up, spruced up, and rehabbed wildlife habitats across their communities. The North Carolina Wildlife Federation is proud to name this group its 2023 Chapter of the Year.”

NCWF Affiliate of the Year, Wake County Wildlife Club (Raleigh)

“During the spring of 2021, NCSU, the Wildlife Federation, the Wildlife Resources Commission, and the Wake County Wildlife Club partnered on a program called Academics Afield. Planning had been underway for months and the need was great: Academics Afield is designed to recruit and provide mentoring opportunities to college students from backgrounds without a family history of hunting, mostly from urban areas.

The effort required commitment—students had to commit to a year-long series of workshops and hunts, and partnering organizations had to commit to a year of support and collaboration.

Thanks to the generous contribution of the Wake County Wildlife Club for its grounds and facilities, and an incredible outpouring of support from Wake County Wildlife Club members, the program is now entering its third year.

A Wake County Wildlife Club scholarship will now ensure the long-term funding of a student coordinator position at NC State – so the Academics Afield program has legs for the long haul.

More than 25 club members have mentored students, and many more have helped with events at the club. Female members from WCWC played a prominent role in the instruction, and 65 percent of the student participants have been female.

This program is a phenomenal success, and an inspiring example of collaboration among a university, a state wildlfie agency, and non-governmental organizations. The Wake County Wildlife Club is the 2023 Wildlife Federation Affiliate of the Year.”

Wildlife Enforcement Officer of the Year, Ryan Biggerstaff (La Grange)

“Biggerstaff’s approach is that wildlife law enforcement is all about making things safe, enjoyable and rewarding for outdoor recreationists. For the families enjoying a day of boating who don’t want to worry about a drunk boater careening into their picnic. For the law-abiding hunters who carefully save up their time off, go by the book and don’t deserve to have a hunt ruined by a poacher.

It’s those people that Ryan Biggerstaff is out to serve. Although don’t get me wrong. If that means serving up a big plate of “gotcha” to poachers and drunk boaters, he’s the man for that job, as well.

During the past year alone, he has arrested 17 boating-while-impared offenders, which included multiple drug impairment cases.

A six-year veteran of the Wildlife Resources Commission, Biggerstaff has become the face of boating safety in North Carolina due to his savvy media interviews and boater education classes. He has written about wildlife enforcement for Wildlife magazine, and is a member of the Commission’s swift water rescue team.

At a time when there’s an increasingly bright spotlight being focused on law enforcement, Officer Ryan Biggerstaff is a perfect example of how North Carolina’s Thin Green Line deserves all the respect we can give it. He is the 2023 Wildlife Law Enforcement Officer of the Year.”

Marine Patrol Officer of the Year, Zac Nelson (Beaufort)

“It’s big country out there in North Carolina’s true Down East; Cedar Island all the way to Davis Shore, covering parts of Core Sound and Pamlico Sound clear to Ocracoke, and a chunk of the mouth of the broad Neuse River. That’s where Zac Nelson works. That’s what he’s responsible for—conserving the marine resources of a natural area the size of a national park.

He has more than 70-pound nets in his assigned area that he has to inspect every year. Untold miles of shoreline and marsh where commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, duck hunters, clammers, kayakers, and more come – all clamoring for their fair share of the resource. It all seems so vast. So endless. But Nelson knows that there’s nothing infinite about the marine resources of the Down East waters.

Every aspect of the marine environment is finite—the saltmarsh cordgrass, the flounder, the black ducks, even the menhaden and mummichogs in their millions. Take too much, take it for granted, and the end result is a diminished future. A wasted legacy.

It’s big country, big water, and it’s as big and beautiful as the future Nelson and his wife want for their first child, just born this year. But there’s only one way for their child to have a shot at enjoying the wild eastern North Carolina where they were born. And that’s for daddy to get up every day, and get on the water, and make sure that no one—third-generation waterman or weekend ditdotter—takes more than their fair share, and takes the marine resources of North Carolina for granted.

For that, he is the 2023 Marine Patrol Officer of the Year.”

Event Sponsors Support Conservation Heroes

Thank you to the following partners, businesses and individuals for helping us honor and celebrate North Carolina’s top-notch conservation leaders of 2023. 

Diamond sponsor: Duke Energy/Piedmont Natural Gas

Gold sponsors: Grady-White Boats, North Carolina Electric Membership Cooperatives, John Robbins, Eckel & Vaughan, Jordan Lumber

Silver sponsors: Rocky Carter, Bill and Debbie Dusch, James R. Shaughnessy, Uwharrie Bank

Bronze sponsors: Higgins Benjamin, PLLC , Knight Consulting, The LDH Group, Martin Marietta, Parker Poe, Progress Printing Plus, The Rutledge Family, DirectMail.com

5 Ways to Support Wildlife & Habitat

  1. Explore our list of native pollinator plants, flowers, trees and shrubs.
  2. Purchase Butterfly Highway seed packets.
  3. Join a Community Wildlife Chapter.
  4. Attend an NCWF event.
  5. Sign up for our wildlife and habitat newsletters.

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