N.C. Wildlife Federation Announces 59th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Award Recipients

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North Carolina Wildlife Federation has announced the winners of its 59th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards. Honorees for 2023 include agency professionals, elected officials, volunteers and organizations committed to North Carolina’s wildlife, habitat and natural resources.

The Federation will honor the 18 award recipients, including the wildlife enforcement and marine patrol officers of the year, at a banquet on Saturday, September 9 at Embassy Suites in Cary, NC. (RSVP and purchase tickets for the 59th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards.)

“Each year, we’re amazed by the commitment and creativity of North Carolinians working to protect the wildlife, air, water and land we all depend on,” said T. Edward Nickens, NCWF awards committee chair. “This year’s conservation heroes are land stewardship champions, water advocates and leaders in the preservation of unique ecosystems — and we’re thrilled to be able to honor them in person at our banquet this year.”

These annual awards provide a platform to highlight inspiring wildlife conservation efforts across North Carolina, with the goal of encouraging active participation in safeguarding the state’s natural resources for the well-being of future generations.

2023 Governor’s Conservation Achievement Award Recipients

  • Conservation Hall of Fame – Derb S. Carter, Jr. (Chapel Hill)
  • Conservationist of the Year – Louis Bacon
  • Wildlife Conservationist of the Year – Joe Madison (Manteo)
  • Sportsman of the Year – Joel McDaniel (Belhaven)
  • Land Conservationist of the Year – Haywood Rankin (Gastonia)
  • Water Conservationist of the Year – Pat Donovan-Brandenburg (Jacksonville)
  • Forest Conservationist of the Year – Mavis Gragg (Durham)
  • Environmental Educator of the Year – Terri McLeod (Cary)
  • Young Conservationist of the Year Lauren D. Pharr (Raleigh)
  • Conservation Organization of the Year – EcoForesters (Asheville)
  • Legislator of the Year – Kyle Hall (King)
  • Business Conservationist of the Year – Atlantic Packaging (Wilmington)
  • Natural Resources Scientist of the Year – Travis Wilson (Creedmoor)
  • Wildlife Volunteer of the Year – Monty Morée (Holly Springs)
  • Public Lands Conservationist of the Year – Brandon Jones (Fontana Dam)
  • NCWF Chapter of the Year – MARSH (Marvin Area for the Restoration and Sustainability of Wildlife Habitat) (Marvin)
  • NCWF Affiliate of the Year – Wake County Wildlife Club (Raleigh)
  • Wildlife Enforcement Officer of the Year – Ryan Biggerstaff (La Grange)
  • Marine Patrol Officer of the Year – Zac Nelson (Beaufort)

About the Recipients

Conservation Hall of Fame

Derb S. Carter, Jr. (Chapel Hill)

Derb Carter is a highly respected environmental advocate and lawyer who has dedicated his career to protecting wetlands and wildlife in North and South Carolina. His early successes in the 1980s led to the preservation of vast wetland areas under the National Wildlife Refuge System. Derb’s expertise in wetland conservation, combined with his involvement in wildlife and habitat lawsuits, such as advocating for red wolf reintroduction and protecting NC fisheries, has made him a trusted voice in the field.

Conservationist of the Year

Louis Bacon

Louis Bacon’s dedication to conservation through The Moore Charitable Foundation and the Orton Foundation has had a profound impact on preserving and restoring natural habitats in North Carolina, particularly in the Cape Fear River basin. By collaborating with key partners, they successfully restored the state’s longleaf pine forests and associated ecosystems. Under Bacon’s ownership, Orton Plantation has undergone extensive restoration efforts, creating a diverse habitat for numerous plant and animal species, with ongoing plans to preserve forest systems, protect endangered species, and boost the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers.

Wildlife Conservationist of the Year

Joe Madison (Manteo)

Joe Madison’s extensive experience in natural resource conservation, particularly with threatened and endangered species like the red wolf, is reflected in his multi-disciplinary approach that includes habitat management, research, community engagement, and population growth strategies. By prioritizing community and partner engagement, transparency, and communication, Madison and his team have gained trust and support for their collaborative red wolf recovery efforts, transforming attitudes towards red wolves and establishing a solid foundation for renewed commitment and revitalized recovery in North Carolina.

Sportsman of the Year

Joel McDaniel (Belhaven)

Joel McDaniel is the founder and CEO of the Belhaven-based Operation Resolute, a nonprofit organization that works with military chaplains to identify and provide for active duty soldiers significant outdoor opportunities and a chance to build resiliency and connectivity among themselves, military spouses, and children. What began as an outreach to send fishing equipment to one chaplain in a war zone has blossomed into an organization that has held 235 events, reaching nearly 7,000 military personnel and their families through hosted deer hunts, deep-sea and surf-fishing trips, turkey hunts, banquets, and weekend retreats. Operation Resolute is currently working to build The Refuge, a headquarters on 430 acres in Hyde County.

Land Conservationist of the Year

Haywood Rankin (Gastonia)

For over 25 years, Haywood Rankin has been instrumental in establishing and managing the 1,400-acre Redlair Preserve, known for its exceptional biodiversity and research opportunities. His dedicated efforts in removing invasive plants, creating a sanctuary for native species, and engaging the local community through educational programs have fostered environmental appreciation among young people. Additionally, Haywood and his family’s generous contribution of a significant tract of land, along with protective easements and a dedicated foundation, ensure the ongoing preservation of North Carolina’s natural resources.

Water Conservationist of the Year

Pat Donovan-Brandenburg (Jacksonville)

Pat Donovan-Brandenburg played a key role in restoring the heavily polluted New River through innovative methods, including artificial oyster reefs, which effectively filtered out pollutants and nutrients. The success of these measures led to the reopening of the river for commercial fishing and recreational activities, and Pat now oversees the New River Oyster Highway Project, which continues to provide a healthy habitat and clean water. The return of coastal wetland creatures signifies the remarkable rejuvenation of an area that was once devoid of life due to pollution.

Forest Conservationist of the Year

Mavis Gragg (Durham)

Mavis Gragg is a dedicated advocate for preserving African-American land and promoting forest conservation, leveraging real estate for intergenerational resilience and wealth-building. Her extensive contributions as a board member of Triangle Land Conservancy and chair of the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority demonstrate her commitment to preserving valuable land and ensuring public access to nature. Additionally, her role as director of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention program at the American Forest Foundation further highlights her leadership in fostering sustainable practices.

Environmental Educator of the Year

Terri McLeod (Cary)

Terri McLeod, affectionately known as “The Native Plant Lady,” has made exceptional contributions to environmental education at Kingswood Elementary and the surrounding community. Her love for nature and sustainability, along with her incorporation of environmental education into the curriculum, has sparked a transformative and lasting impact, fostering a deep appreciation for science and the natural world among students from diverse backgrounds. Terri’s infectious enthusiasm and mantra of “Science is everywhere” resonate throughout the school, igniting a love for learning and the environment.

Young Conservationist of the Year

Lauren D. Pharr (Raleigh)

Lauren Pharr is a passionate advocate for inclusivity and support for marginalized individuals in the natural science field. As a co-founder of Field Inclusive, she empowers historically underrepresented individuals and actively works towards creating a more diverse and inclusive academic community. Pursuing a Ph.D. in Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, Lauren’s research focuses on avian ecology and conservation, particularly investigating the impact of climate change on the reproductive success of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Additionally, she holds editorial roles and serves on diversity, equity, and inclusion committees, further contributing to her commitment to fostering inclusivity in her field.

Conservation Organization of the Year

EcoForesters (Asheville)

Ecoforesters, a professional forestry nonprofit established in 2015, conserves and restores Appalachian forests in North Carolina through stewardship, education, and collaboration. Their work benefits native wildlife and involves diverse stakeholders such as landowners, indigenous communities, government forest services, and conservation professionals. By assisting landowners with ecologically sustainable forest management plans and addressing invasive plants, Ecoforesters empower and support forest stewardship while bridging gaps in agency capacity.

Legislator of the Year

Kyle Hall (King)

Kyle Hall, serving as a representative in the NC House of Representatives and chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, is a strong advocate for conservation and natural resources. He supports various conservation trust funds and has championed initiatives such as restoring the conservation income tax credit and designating the Dan River as a State Trail. Through his efforts, funding has been secured for the restoration of facilities at Hanging Rock State Park, expansion of Mayo River State Park, acquisition of the Shoebuckle property for a new state forest, and the establishment of a canoe and kayak access site for the Dan River State Trail.

Business Conservationist of the Year

Atlantic Packaging (Wilmington)

Atlantic Packaging actively engages its 800 employees across North Carolina in conservation efforts, providing sustainability and conservation education to inspire more sustainable practices both at work and at home. As a leader in sustainable packaging, their influence extends to cities like Charlotte, Greensboro, and Wilmington, where they collaborate with local organizations to promote environmentally conscious practices during major events and contribute to coastal beautification. Through partnerships, investments, and outreach efforts, Atlantic Packaging impacts conservation initiatives, fostering positive change in North Carolina and beyond.

Natural Resources Scientist of the Year

Travis Wilson (Creedmoor)

With two decades of experience in highway planning, permitting, and construction, Travis Wilson is an expert in wetland and stream mitigation, wildlife passage, and sportsman access. His expertise in wildlife crossing structures is sought after by state and federal agencies, and he has contributed to books, articles, and on-the-ground research. Travis’s use of trail cameras to monitor crossings has provided valuable insights into species behavior and the effectiveness of various design and location factors, while his work in developing a Memorandum of Understanding between the NCWRC and the North Carolina Department of Transportation highlights his commitment to improving wildlife passage in the state.

Wildlife Volunteer of the Year

Monty Morée (Holly Springs)

Monty Moree is a dedicated leader in conservation initiatives, engaging the community through pollinator-friendly beautification projects, the Eco Kids Program, and the Kids in Nature Day Event. With nearly 1,000 participants, the event offers interactive learning experiences and promotes inclusivity. Monty’s efforts have established a welcoming community committed to successful events that educate and engage the public in conservation endeavors, fostering a deeper connection with North Carolina’s diverse flora and fauna.

Public Lands Conservationist of the Year

Brandon Jones (Fontana Dam)

Brandon Jones launched a successful cleanup effort for Lake Fontana in western North Carolina, removing over 200,000 pounds of trash from the lake and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park shoreline. Through partnerships with organizations like the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and Mainspring Conservation Trust, the initiative has made a significant impact and inspired others to take ownership of the cleanup, making it the most extensive cleanup on national park lands.

NCWF Chapter of the Year

MARSH (Marvin Area for the Restoration and Sustainability of Wildlife Habitat) (Marvin)

The MARSH chapter’s dedication to restoration, sustainability, and education has positively impacted Union County and beyond. Their efforts, such as tree plantings in schools, tire cleanup campaigns, and hosting gardening workshops, have resulted in new certified wildlife habitats, a cleaner environment, and a growing community of advocates for wildlife conservation. The chapter’s commitment to protecting wildlife and engaging the local community showcases their passion for conservation.

NCWF Affiliate of the Year

Wake County Wildlife Club (Raleigh)

The success of the Academics Afield program in North Carolina is attributed to the support of the Wake County Wildlife Club. Through 12 organized events covering various aspects of hunting, including safety, social gatherings, and wild game meals, the club has provided mentoring, private hunting properties, and hunter education to college students from non-traditional backgrounds. The club’s commitment to inclusivity is evident in the prominent instructional roles taken on by female members to foster a welcoming environment for all participants.

Wildlife Enforcement Officer of the Year

Ryan Biggerstaff

Ryan Biggerstaff, an integral member of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission for the past six years, played a vital role in safeguarding wildlife resources during the hunting season by apprehending numerous individuals involved in illegal activities such as night deer hunting, migratory waterfowl violations, and turkey hunting with bait. His dedication extended to enforcing boating safety, as he actively engaged in media interviews, emphasizing the importance of wearing personal flotation devices and assigning sober operators. Furthermore, Officer Biggerstaff’s proactive approach extended to removing impaired operators from both waterways and roads, resulting in the investigation or arrest of over 65 cases of boating while impaired and driving while impaired offenses. Currently, he also contributes as a district writer for wildlife enforcement stories and has recently joined the swift water rescue team.

Marine Patrol Officer of the Year 

Zac Nelson (Beaufort)

Officer Zach Nelson began his career in law enforcement in 2012 before joining the Marine Patrol in 2019. Throughout the year, he has conducted numerous patrols, leading to over 80 enforcement actions, and has been instrumental in protecting the state’s marine resources. In addition to being a valued member of the Marine Patrol Swift Water Rescue Team, Officer Nelson has undergone extra training, such as obtaining his EMT certification and Advanced Law Enforcement certification from the North Carolina Criminal Justice and Training Standards Commission, while balancing family commitments and demonstrating his dedication to his profession and the Marine Patrol team.

RSVP and purchase tickets for the 59th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards at https://ncwf.org/governors-conservation-achievement-awards/.

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