Tar Heel of the Week

Mikki Sager works to preserve land, help local economies

CorrespondentJanuary 5, 2013 

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Mikki Sager runs The Conservation Fund's Resourceful Communities Program which helps North Carolina's underserved communities create new economies while preserving natural resources. Sager was photographed on Friday January 4, 2013 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

  • Michele “Mikki” Piras Sager Born: July 26, 1951, in Long Island, N.Y. Career: Vice president and resourceful communities program director, The Conservation Fund Education: B.S., health and physical education, Penn State University Awards: 2012 Purpose Prize Fellow Affiliations: Founding board member of a half-dozen local and state development organizations, and a member of many more, including N.C. Rural Economic Development Center board of directors; N.C. Rural Health Task Force Steering Committee; Natural Capital Investment Fund; Wealth Creation Working Group, the Ford Foundation; N.C. Folklife Institute Family: Husband, Bruce; children, Jason, 33, and Alyson, 30 Fun Fact: Sager’s daughter’s birthday is New Year’s Day; she was the first child born in Jackson County in 1983.

— When Mikki Sager looks at the poorest, most isolated pockets of the state, she sees much more than poverty and joblessness set amid bucolic landscapes.

She sees talented people with strong ties to their communities and the land. And because many of the state’s poorest counties are situated within its most important ecosystems, she also sees a wealth of natural resources.

Sager has led an effort to help these rural communities thrive in ways that are also good for the natural environment that surrounds them. She spearheaded and now directs the Resourceful Communities Program within the state’s Conservation Fund, part of a national nonprofit group that seeks to preserve natural spaces.

In the past 11 years, she has helped funnel more than $40 million into rural communities for homegrown, eco-friendly job initiatives, from boardwalks and visitors’ centers to farmers’ markets and alternative energy sources.

On paper, her program uses “asset-based economic development” to enhance the “triple bottom line” of economic, social and environmental benefits. But the plainspoken Sager says she helps people answer a crucial question: “How do we make money off the land without messing it up?”

“We’re helping folks in rural communities across the state find different ways to balance economic challenges with the environmental significance,” says Sager, 61. “We don’t feel like people should be forced to choose between having a strong economy or clean air and water.”

Sager logs thousands of miles traversing the state to visit and rally her local partners, and she also works to promote their causes at the state and national levels. Her work recently earned her a national honor, Purpose Prize Fellow, for people over 60 who are making an impact after a mid-life career change.

“Mikki’s has been a pivotal and singular voice to bring together leaders, grass-roots representatives and creative can-do to advance efforts that strengthen local economies while stewarding the environment,” says Billy Ray Hall, president of the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center.

Life in a canoe

Sager developed her love for the rural South while living in the North Carolina mountains for more than a decade. Once a competitive whitewater athlete, Sager lived on a shoestring budget while she worked as a raft guide and sewed custom gear for competitive kayakers during the offseason.

The experience was eye-opening for Sager, who came to appreciate rural know-how and ingenuity.

“It takes so much more to make a life in a rural place,” she says.

Sager spent her own childhood in Levittown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her parents, the children of immigrants from Italy, Canada and Germany, moved there from Long Island.

She excelled as an athlete, and went to Penn State on a scholarship for gymnastics. She earned her degree in physical education, planning to teach.

But instead her life path took a sudden turn at a friend’s wedding, where she met a whitewater athlete in need of a partner. He asked Sager out on a kayaking date, and within a year the couple were competing internationally in whitewater canoeing.

Sager went to two such competitions – in 1973 in Switzerland, and what was then Yugoslavia in 1975.

Back at home, she wanted to put her skills to use as a rafting guide, but the only place she could find that would hire a woman for that job was the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which was then a small, remote rafting outlet near Bryson City.

Now a bustling tourist destination, the center ran almost like a commune back then, Sager says. She was responsible for cleaning the rooms and other odd jobs as well as guiding visitors down the Nantahala.

She made $50 a week plus room and board, she says, and worked 14 hours a day.

“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she says.

She met her husband, also a whitewater enthusiast, there, and the couple had two children, for a while living on less than $10,000 a year. When her son was ready to start school, they moved to Chapel Hill.

Helping rural communities

Sager started out as an office manager at an engineering firm and soon took a job with the Conservation Fund as an administrative assistant.

It was from this modest position that she helped found the Resourceful Communities Program. It started when the Conservation Fund bought and preserved the huge tract of land in the northeastern corner of the state that is now the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge spanned several of the state’s poorest counties, and some communities were not happy to have the land taken off their tax rolls. So Sager set about helping them make that money back by using the refuge as a tourist attraction.

She wrote her first grant proposal to put a crew of Tyrrell County teens to work building boardwalks into the wetlands, and she helped community leaders form the grassroots organization to run it and build others around the refuge.

The results – sturdy wood boardwalks that passed federal inspections, an unusually large percentage of the children going to college and finding jobs – inspired her to find other such projects.

She now leads about half a dozen employees who work with 250 local organizations across the state.

In the western part of the state, her group helped employ young people making energy-efficient upgrades to subsidized housing, and helped designate the New River as an American Heritage River.

In the Sandhills, they helped a Hoke County group outfit a 500-acre forest with horseback-riding trails and plant longleaf pines so they could sell the straw.

Sager keeps a close eye on each project, soaking up knowledge of her adopted state with an eager intellect. She can rattle off the history of the Great Dismal Swamp, starting with George Washington, or the ecological details of the state’s most precious ecosystems.

A lot of her job is connecting people from isolated areas with the state and national organizations that might fund their projects, and with other communities that share resources, such as rivers, that are best managed cooperatively.

The group also helps communities make plans to build on their existing assets – an approach that she sees as a viable alternative to luring industries from outside with incentives.

“This is what the future of the conservation movement looks like,” she says, “because it comes from communities that in many cases have been taking care of land and water resources for many years, and letting them say how they want their economy to be.”

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