The annual celebration of the public trails system, National Trails Day, is well-known, but in North Carolina the first Saturday in June has come to mean more than just trail appreciation. Since 1993, the Great Outdoor Provision Company (GOPC) has been donating a percentage of its sales on National Trails Day to local land trusts. This year on Land Trust Day, as it is now called, 10 businesses, including GOPC, participated and in all raised more than $14,000 to be divided among four land trusts.
"We wanted to give something back to one of the cornerstones of our outdoor clothing and equipment businessâ€¦to celebrate the value of all kinds of â€˜muscle-powered trails,' " Tom and Becca Valone, owners of GOPC say in a letter to their customers.
The Valones founded GOPC, a Raleigh-based outdoor gear and clothing retailer, in 1972. They have seven locations in different regions of North Carolina.
"All of us in the outdoor industry have donated money to good causes," says Tom Valone. "But most of the time it's $10 here and a T-shirt there. We got this nagging feeling that we hadn't made a significant difference. We had not burned a hole in the paper, so to speak."
When National Trails Day was launched in 1993, the Valones decided that it was time to do something significant. So they instituted an "earth tax," a donation of 25 percent of their sales on National Trails Day.
"I thought, 'What is it that trails need?' " Tom Valone told SNEWSÂ®. "The real pressing need is land. In places where there are no national forests, like here in North Carolina, the paths need to be local, and in a lot of cases they need to be acquired."
That's where land trusts come in.
Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) is one of the main recipients of Land Trust Day's donations. Founded in 1983, TLC began as an all-volunteer operation and so far has protected more than 6,500 acres. A land trust like TLC acquires or protects land in three different ways: outright acquisition, conservation easement, or assisting local government or agencies in protecting open space from development. If TLC purchases land or if land is given to them, it is outright acquisition. If a landowner continues to own his or her property, but there is a restriction on the deed to prevent development, it is a conservation easement.
"There's a natural connection between our love of the outdoors, our desire to help others have great experiences outdoors, and our company's civic commitment," Becca Valone says. She is on the board of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, which supports the state's 21 regional and local land trusts. "Land trusts are deserving of our support because they protect ecologically significant lands as well as farmland, river corridors and urban open space."
According to Tom Valone, the outdoor community needs to tax itself. He attributes the idea to Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, who has been "saying it for years."
"We're trying to do as much as we can because this is the way we make our living, by playing in these places," Tom Valone says. "Land trusts are not government programs and helping them preserve land gives us places for mental health and for people to use our products."
GOPC raised a little more than $14,000 the first year of the "earth tax" and has since raised more than $200,000.
"This process of donations, Land Trust Day itself, is still in its infancy," Tom Valone says.
For the Valones, the first step toward donating was to call the local land trust and offer them space in the front of GOPC stores. They disseminated materials, and TLC had volunteers there to answer questions.
"One of the biggest challenges is education," Tom Valone says. "The person who comes in to buy a T-shirt, flip flops or whatever, that person is exposed to the concept of land trust, and that might come up in conversation for them now. The education is as important as the money."
The second step was to get the information out to the general public, not just the people coming into GOPC stores. So, they designed and distributed posters, ran a small ad and had local radio stations broadcast PSAs.
"Of course, something important we did was to ask the land trusts if they wanted to be the recipient of the donations," Tom Valone says. "Some trusts said no at first because they thought it was too commercial. But 25 percent of sales is huge and when they saw that, they said yes."
This year's Land Trust Day was bigger than ever before because of the participation of nine businesses aside from GOPC.
"It was a real concerted effort this year," says Doug Nicholas, director of communications at TLC. "We're laying the foundation for coming years. We see it as our local small business fundraising program."
Not all of the businesses that participated were outdoor retailers. A burrito shop, a bakery and a bookstore all supported the program.
"The great thing about the way it worked this year was that we gave businesses easy ways to get involved," Nicholas says.
Some followed the lead of GOPC and donated percentages of their sales. Others sponsored a benefit concert, Land Stand, with local bands. Still others contributed gift certificates to land trust membership drives.
"Our company doesn't sell equipment that's used in the outdoors," says Brendan Moylan, one of the owners of Sports Endeavors, a soccer and lacrosse equipment company that sponsored the benefit concert. "But a lot of our employees use land that has been protected by TLC. We want to be part of the efforts to preserve land."
Because the donations are often based on sales, the amount that goes to the land trusts fluctuates each year.
"It's not a big increase, but (Land Trust Days) have been getting more and more successful each year," Tom Valone says. "It makes a nice percentage spike on that Saturday and then the Saturday after that. I look at this year's as the most successful because of how many businesses got involved."
According to Valone, some of his regular customers will hold off on their large purchases until Land Trust Day so that a larger amount will be donated.
"What it really does is excite our core customer," he says. "The person who goes out and sweats, hikes, bikes, paddles -- it makes a great deal of difference for them."
SNEWS VIEW: As Tom Valone said, a lot of outdoor retailers donate money to good causes. The Sports Basement in San Francisco donated 20 percent of its sales on June 19 to the local land conservation non-profit Greenbelt Alliance. The Alpineer, an outdoor specialty shop in Crested Butte, Colorado, asks customers to donate one percent of their purchases to local land conservation non-profits. Patagonia's environmental protection efforts range from donations for land conservancy to protecting wild salmon. It makes sense for outdoor retailers to help preserve spaces where people can use the equipment they purchase. It makes even more sense for businesses to pool their efforts, as they did in North Carolina, so that donations can really be felt. A SNEWSÂ® two-thumbs up and two big toes raised salute to the Valones and their team. For more information on Land Trust Day, visit the Great Outdoor Provision Co.'s website at www.greatoutdoorprovision.com/ltdstory.html.