Last Thursday, I found myself sipping an oatmeal porter in the Highland Brewing tasting room. Our associate director was wearing a spotted cougar ear headband. I traded notes with a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist about the cultural significance of mountain lions in Western North Carolina folklore. Just another day at work…wait, what?
This summer, I am working as a conservation tax policy analyst at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC), a regional land trust based in Asheville, NC. After working to push new conservation tax legislation through the NC General Assembly, my biggest project at work is now helping SAHC and local tax assessors to implement the new policies. This includes assessing the land trust’s real property holdings and strategically enrolling in various tax exemption programs to limit their tax liability. On a typical day, I’m reading old property surveys, looking up tax records, searching for recorded conservation easements and property deeds, and reading land cover GAP analyses and habitat management plans.
At this point, you may be wondering how beer tasting fits into that job. I should mention that as a craft beer enthusiast, the prospect of spending the summer in Asheville, which has the highest per capita concentration of microbreweries in the country and was recently crowned “Beer City USA” by craft beer demigod Charlie Papazian, held a certain undeniable allure. I knew this internship would offer me an exciting opportunity to analyze the impacts of conservation legislation on local and regional land trusts and to broaden my knowledge of conservation finance, but I never expected beer tourism would be anything more than an extracurricular pursuit.
Back to me and my coworkers at Highland Brewing. To be honest, the phrase “strategic partnerships” used to invoke a lot of eye-rolling on my part. I understood the meaning of the term in an abstract sense, and definitely even recommended using them in a policy memo or two this past year, but I largely considered it a buzz word like “synergy” or “innovation” or “civic engagement,” terms so hackneyed and overused at this point that they have ceased to have any real meaning.
But local land conservation organizations have a bit of a publicity challenge on their hands. You can’t exactly go around putting up billboards to advertise lands you have protected from development. 90% of the forested lands in North Carolina are privately owned, but most people know very little about the role of nonprofit conservation organizations in landscape preservation. And while many people are familiar with federal protections for national park lands, they are generally unaware of how closely nonprofit land trusts work with government agencies such as the Forest Service or Fish and Wildlife Service to protect contiguous landscapes, safeguard critical habitat corridors, or coordinate regional land use planning objectives.
Enter the strategic partnership between SAHC, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Highland Brewing Company. “For Love of Beer and Mountains” includes seasonal beer releases from Highland, SAHC-guided hikes through protected mountain ridges, and educational events led by Fish and Wildlife Service experts. This summer’s release of Cattail Peak, an organic wheat beer, was accompanied by a Fish and Wildlife talk at the brewery about cougar (Puma concolor) identification and tracking efforts in the Southern Appalachians. In July, we’ll lead adventurous hikers to the summit of Cattail Peak in nearby Mount Mitchell State Park.
To borrow a term from office-life philosopher Michael Scott, this strategic partnership is pretty much a win-win-win for all parties involved. In a city with a very strong independent beer culture, using six-packs of organic microbrew is a highly effective channel for disseminating information to the public about SAHC’s conservation efforts. At an elevation of 6,584 feet (one of the highest points east of the Rockies), the view from Cattail Peak will afford hikers an unparalleled perspective on unique ecological treasures that SAHC is working to protect, like spruce-fir forests and endangered northern flying squirrel habitat in the 400 million year-old Black Mountains. The Fish and Wildlife Service gets a broad public platform to explain its collaborative efforts to manage wildlife habitat in the region. And Highland, which promotes itself as a sustainability-minded brewery with strong roots in the Blue Ridge Mountain community, gains credibility as a progressive conservation and stewardship partner.
One of Asheville’s popular tourist-grubbing slogans is “Altitude affects attitude.” I can’t say for certain whether it’s the beer or the altitude talking, but I’m not rolling my eyes any more at strategic partnerships.