Story By Page Lowry
Photography By Keith Ketchum

A love of nature is in Camilla Herlevich’s blood. Her father was a forester, and instead of taking his family to amusement parks and museums for family vacations, he took them to national parks where they camped and hiked. That appreciation for the outdoors shaped Herlevich’s life, especially her adult life. After graduating from Boston University with a law degree, she came back to Wilmington, her home town, and worked in a law office for a year.

“I was terrible at it!” she exclaims with a chuckle. “It wasn’t interesting. I was just moving money back and forth between people. I had to leave before I went crazy.”

Herlevich went to work for The Nature Conservancy, the international conservation organization. Eventually, she had environmental protection responsibility for 14 southern states.

“It was a field I loved with an organization I greatly respected,” she says, but when, after ten years, The Nature Conservancy wanted to transfer her to Orlando, Herlevich knew that it was time for a change. And that decision has been a blessing for coastal North Carolina.

At the time, there was increasing interest in preserving undeveloped land, and land trusts were a growing movement. There was, however, no such organization in eastern North Carolina. With the realization that there was indeed a need, Herlevich took the bold and ambitious step of creating a land trust that would encompass the North Carolina coast. She enlisted the aid of three other people to help her incorporate, and in 1991 the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust (CLT) was born. The initial plan was to include 31 counties along the coast, but the group quickly realized that such a large number of counties would overwhelm their fledgling organization, so they retrenched a bit.

Now that the CLT existed, at least on paper, the next task was to start acquiring properties. Herlevich went to The Nature Conservancy and asked if they had any projects that did not meet their criteria (e.g. size). Indeed they did, and a 14-acre parcel of land in the North Chase neighborhood of New Hanover County became the CLT’s first acquisition in 1992. In the 20 years since, the CLT has grown to encompass the 31 coastal counties that were the original goal.

“It took about five years to raise enough money to pay myself a salary,” Herlevich says. “I worked at the Land Trust part-time and took other part-time jobs to help support a growing family.”

The Coastal Land Trust plays an active role in making sure that a large portion of our area remains as nature intended, and that our children’s children will have creeks to explore and bird songs to hear. It’s an organization of like-minded members, people with no political agenda, no ax to grind. Herlevich makes it clear that the Coastal Land Trust is not anti-development.

“It’s all about balance,” she says, “about recognizing the need to save the wild places which can provide a needed respite in our busy lives.”

Brunswick County holds a special spot in Herlevich’s heart for a number of reasons. This county is among the most biologically diverse areas along the entire East Coast. Part of the reason is geology: the area is on a geologic fault line called The Cape Fear Arch. This region’s location near Cape Fear, jutting out into the ocean, makes it subject to “interesting” weather patterns like hurricanes and, potentially, earthquakes. In addition, the region has, at various points in its past, been delta, beach and ocean floor. Each new stage created distinct plant and animal communities. A prime example is the Venus Fly-Trap — a plant that exists naturally nowhere else in the world.

Another fact that makes Brunswick County so special to the Coastal Land Trust is the 10,000 acres that have been protected here thus far. Many of the properties, such as those on this side of the river that have been in the MacRae and Bellamy families for generations, are privately held and are not open to the public. A large portion of Orton Plantation, which had been open to the public but is now private, was acquired several years ago. While these properties may be private, the public can take comfort in the fact that these lands are no longer in danger of being destroyed by development.

With such properties, the acquisition happens when owners of large tracts of land donate or sell property to the CLT. The resulting conservation easement is a voluntary, permanent legal agreement with the landowners, who retain ownership and use of the land while pledging that it will not be developed.

“It’s important to note the word ‘permanent,’” says Herlevich. “Even if the current owners die or move away, the property remains a conservation easement under the protection of the Coastal Land Trust forever.”

The crown jewel, however, the public anchor of all the private lands around it, is the recently acquired Brunswick Nature Park. This land, which the CLT bought with a $2 million grant from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, was subsequently donated to Brunswick County by the CLT. At 900 acres, this parcel is slightly larger than New York City’s Central Park. Its location in a previously undeveloped part of Brunswick County makes it the perfect spot for numerous outdoor activities. There are hiking trails and there are ramps for launching kayaks or canoes into Town Creek.

Coastal Land Trust’s Family Fun Day held last fall at the park was an unexpected, unqualified success. It had been anticipated that about 300 people would participate but close to 1,000 showed up. Another Family Fun Day is planned for this fall, around the middle of October.

“It’s an ideal way to make the Coastal Land Trust more relevant to people, young and old, and to allow everyone to see the beauties of nature right here in Brunswick County,” says Herlevich.

Herlevich is frequently asked what the difference is between the Coastal Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy.

“We’re more alike than different,” she says, “In that both of us are conservation organizations. The Nature Conservancy, however, has a more limited focus regarding the lands they protect. Nationally, and even internationally, they’re interested in large tracts of significant biological diversity. We have a wider palate of projects with broader criteria. I guess that means we’re not as fussy about the properties we acquire. We’re also,” she adds, “more nimble, more flexible, less bureaucratic. The downside, unfortunately, is that we don’t have access to as many resources — money, people — as they do.”

For now, the CLT faces challenges just like any other similar organization. There is always a need for more money and more land, especially land that is donated. Most of the money for land acquisition comes from state and federal grants. Unfortunately, that money is not as readily available as in the past. The pot of dollars in the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund has gone from $100 million to $10 million.

Nevertheless, Herlevich and the CLT remain optimistic. Their optimism is driven in large part by their desire for local residents to enjoy the outdoors and participate in activities that reflect a wholesome, healthy lifestyle.