Face Of This Place

Rutherford Seydel

In celebration of The Conservation Fund’s 30th Anniversary, we sat down with past Chairman, J. Rutherford Seydel, who joined the Fund’s Board in 1999. Rutherford then served as Vice Chairman from 2003 to 2008; and as Chairman from 2008 until 2014. Rutherford is a lifelong Atlantan and deeply involved with many local and national nonprofits. We sat down with Rutherford to discuss his introduction to The Conservation Fund and his experience with how the Fund has evolved over his time on the Board.  

What is special about the Jocassee Gorges?
This place is a really unique and amazing intact, ecological wonder, complete with abundant trout streams and the connection of several watersheds. I first heard of this property when Mike Leonard, the Fund’s current Chairman, had presented to my father-in-law, Ted Turner, a coffee table book about the tallest, most extraordinary waterfalls in the United States. When this property in South Carolina’s northwest corner became available, it seemed like the type of place that Ted would want to acquire, as he appreciates protecting lands for the greater benefit of the ecosystem at large. When I went up to see it, the area lived up to the unique attributes, like many of the waterfalls in that coffee table book. I came back and told Ted, “If you are looking for one of the best spots for trout fishing in the Southeast, this might be the place.” At the time, we thought that the State of South Carolina and neighboring North Carolina did not realize what an incredible natural asset this property was. It contained the upland watershed and these cold, clear streams were the main source of drinking water for many surrounding towns, including Greenville and Spartanburg. All in all, it seemed like an amazing opportunity – for conservation, for ecology, for people, and the local economy.

So how did The Conservation Fund become involved?
Well, Ted put a contract on the property and we were committed to buying the land. That’s when I got a call from Pat Noonan. He explained who The Conservation Fund was and why they were working with the state of South Carolina. He wanted us to give the State more time. Pat said our interest in acquiring the lands had moved the State to action.

When I went on a tour of the property, I met some local citizens who told me they used these lands for hunting and fishing. They said they were committed to protecting the property and didn’t want the ‘revenuers’ to get hold of it. The State of South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources decided to make the project a priority and began getting the financing in order. Ted was pleased that it was going to be preserved for future generations and was happy to let The Conservation Fund and the State of South Carolina protect it. When the project was completed, it was a win-win for everyone, for The Conservation Fund, and for the citizens of South Carolina. Instead, Ted was able to protect some high quality habitat in Georgia, about an hour and a half away from Atlanta. 

Pat Noonan was so impressed with your conservation work that he asked you to join the board. Why did you decide to join?
Working on Jocassee Gorges was a great way to meet The Conservation Fund, not just Pat Noonan, but also co-founder Rich Erdmann and Larry Selzer, before he was the Fund’s CEO, as well as many of the founding board members who had been with the Fund since the beginning. The 1990s was a time of major growth for the Fund, transitioning from its founding leadership to the next generation of leaders. I was really impressed with the projects they were doing and thought I could play a role in helping the Fund grow.

How has the Fund changed in the years you served on the board?
The Fund has always been excellent, and I think it remains one of the best organizations at completing complex land conservation projects in the United States. As the Fund has evolved, we have found ourselves looking at conservation in many ways. For example, the first meeting I sat on as Chairman, in the late 1990s, after serving on the board for several years, we initiated a plan to use carbon credits – before many other organizations. We were already beginning to work in other ecosystem services, like mitigation banking, endangered species banking, and different ways to find more protection and value in what nature provides. We began looking for new ways to monetize and demonstrate the value of conservation for the protection of nature. These types of innovative ideas are essential to the success of the Fund and is exemplified through the entrepreneurial spirit that Pat, Rich, Larry, and many others instilled within the organization.

In fact, Larry and the team have kept this innovative spirit moving and expanding with new tactics by finding new ways to fund conservation. Now, we have more programs to leverage dollars for conservation like our Land Conservation Loans program, where we help land trusts and other organizations by providing bridge capital that allows them to creatively achieve conservation at a local level. I find that to be refreshing.

I’ve worked with many conservation groups. Some groups are working on historic preservation, while other groups focus on increasing human access to greenspace or working toward preserving biological diversity. All of these groups are terrific, but The Conservation Fund’s mission is not limited to one idea. The Fund is doing all of these things. In Georgia, we are working to protect historic lands through the Fund’s preservation of Civil War Battlefields. The Fund is also protecting land for people through its Parks With Purpose project right here in downtown Atlanta. This work is ensuring green landscapes are available in urban areas. We are also saving lands to support an intact and healthy environment. Some of the largest native trees in Georgia are just a stone’s throw from the airport in East Point, at Conely Park. This park was established with the help of The Conservation Fund. These beautiful trees have existed since before the country was settled, and thanks to the Fund and its partners, you can fly out of the Atlanta airport—the busiest airport in the world—and see these incredible trees from above. That’s pretty cool. 

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Jocassee Gorges
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