ROTY winner Great Outdoor Provision Company lends critical support to North Carolina land trusts

Great Outdoor Provision Company rallies support for North Carolina land trusts, and educates the public on how these conservation groups operate. Helping save more than 300,000 acres of land, Great Outdoor Provision won the 2010 SNEWS/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for the conservation category.
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In 1992, Great Outdoor Provision Company launched Land Trust Day, an annual event held on National Trails Day (the first Saturday of June), which highlights the conservation work of North Carolina land trusts. Since its inception, Land Trust Day has helped protect more than 300,000 acres of land.

The winner of the 2010 SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for the conservation category, Great Outdoor Provision’s Land Trust Day has played a crucial role in conserving North Carolina forests and streams by raising money for land trusts and informing the public about the work of these important organizations.

Educating the public

Tom Valone, owner of Great Outdoor Provision Company (www.greatoutdoorprovision.com), which operates seven stores in North Carolina, said his business has always worked to support environmental conservation groups ever since he opened his first store in 1972. But, he told SNEWS® that for many years the company’s efforts to donate money and other resources were not nearly as focused as they are now.

“It was $20 here, $100 there, without a lot of direction,” said Valone. “In the early ‘90s, we decided we could do better by supporting the land trusts.”

In 1992, Great Outdoor Provision began working with the Conservation Trust for North Carolina (www.ctnc.org), an umbrella group for 26 land trust organizations in the state. Great Outdoor Provision and the CTNC partner to produce Land Trust Day, during which the general public is invited to Great Outdoor Provision stores to learn more about the way land trusts operate, and to get details on specific areas they are trying to protect.

The stores donate to the CTNC a percentage of sales made during Land Trust Day, and Great Outdoor Provision also donates funds it receives from outdoor manufacturers. While the event raises money, its primary goal is to educate people.

“In the early ‘90s, we discovered there was a bit of a disconnect where the man on the street didn’t really understanding what a local land trust was,” said Chuck Millsaps, the “minister of culture” and vice president of Great Outdoor Provision. “We realized we needed to educate ourselves and our customers on what these great organizations do.”

Reaching a broad audience

Jan Pender, a development associate for the CTNC, said that Great Outdoor Provision has been a great asset because it has stores located throughout the state, and it can grab the attention of a large, widespread population of people.

“They’ve been really instrumental in raising awareness through their retail customers who wouldn’t ordinarily get that message,” said Pender, adding that the store’s customers “are interested in doing things on the land, but aren’t necessarily community activists, or people who would join a land trust without any other knowledge about it.”

Pender said Great Outdoor Provision has been especially helpful because its efforts have informed people of conservation concerns in their own backyard.

“The Land Trust Day has taught people about land being preserved in their local community, whether it’s a greenway or river system that provides clean drinking water,” said Pender. “It’s not faraway places; it’s right there near your home, and that’s an important public awareness message, because the more people are aware of the projects, the more they give.”

This year’s Land Trust Day will focus on protecting land along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. “That’s important, because a lot of people don’t realize that many of the incredible views people enjoy on the Parkway are in private ownership on land that could be developed very easily,” said Pender. “There have been very nostalgic views that have had Taj Mahals put on them -- condos, hotels.”

So far, Great Outdoor Provision has helped the CTNC preserve land in 1,884 places, and Pender said many of these projects would not have succeeded without the efforts of land trusts. A primary reason is that the trusts often deal with tracts of land that are too small to be addressed by large organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy. Pender added that land trusts also work more quickly than large government organizations to acquire or preserve property.

“One of the great things about land trusts is that state agencies or federal agencies take years to put funding together because of the bureaucracy. But a land trust can go in and get a property right there on the auction block,” said Pender. “Sometimes, government agencies are not nimble enough to protect the places that are most highly valued.”

She added that the CTNC and Great Outdoor Provision also make a point to tell people that, these days, private individuals play an important role in setting aside land for the public to enjoy. “There’s not a lot of state money to create parks, nor is the federal government creating large national parks. It’s more up to private individuals to provide land that will be preserved,” said Pender.

According to Millsaps, Land Trust Day often attracts people who happen to own land and want to protect their property, but are not aware of the options available to them. “They learn what the land trust does and how you can better preserve land that’s in your family. They might be thinking of selling the land, and they learn other options available to them,” he said.

Let’s vote on it

While Land Trust Day has steadily increased awareness of conservation issues over the years, Great Outdoor Provision decided two years ago to take the event to a new level.

It launched Vote for Land, which has allowed the public to vote on their favorite land trust project, and the winner has received a $3,000 grant from Great Outdoor Provision. The store works with CTNC to compile a slate of projects, and then encourages the 50,000 people on the store’s mailing list to cast their votes.

“The Vote for Land gets customers involved with conservation, gets them involved with our stores, and with our vendors,” said Valone. “It puts money where our customers have voted and said needs it the most.”

Millsaps said this new twist on Land Trust Day has really sparked the public to get involved, and he said that in 2008 the voting got pretty wild. “We had no idea it would be picked up by the local press the way it was,” said Millsaps.

He explained that one of the projects on the ballot involved land adjacent to the Smoky Mountains. On the Friday before Land Trust Day, when the voting was scheduled to end, a newspaper in Tennessee ran an article about the event, and it sparked a voting frenzy. “The number of votes that poured in from 8 a.m. to 11:59 was crazy,” said Millsaps. “It was a horse race.” That year, nearly 15,000 people voted.

Going forward, Vote for Land will be tweaked a bit, said Millsaps. While the winning project will still receive a large grant, all of the entries on the ballot will also receive a base gift to ensure that all of the land trusts benefit financially.

Great Outdoor Provision has also established a website, www.landtrustday.com, to promote the event. In addition, the company is tapping into Facebook and Twitter to generate interest. “They seem to be working really well for us,” said Millsaps. “We’ve been very surprised at how our messages get out there, are re-tweeted and wind up in other forms of media. Everyone is so busy, you take advantage of every chance you can to make impressions and remind people.”

More than just a store

While Great Outdoor Provision has succeeded in rallying support around the land trusts, the business has also benefited because the conservation programs attract new customers. 

“The biggest thing is it helps us connect a little bit more closely with the community,” said Valone. “Folks who might not be aware of us at all become aware of us, because we’re touching something that means something to them.”

Plus, Land Trust Day allows people to view Great Outdoor Provision as more than a company that sells gear. “If we’re not offsetting our impact, we’re not being correct stewards,” said Valone. “It’s registering with people that we’re doing something more than just opening our door and paying our taxes. That’s the kind of citizen we want to be in our community.”

To read about the other ROTY winners from this year and in 2009, click here.

--Marcus Woolf

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