Face Of This Place

Whitney Flanagan, Creative Director 

Can you describe your connection to the mountains of Tennessee, and how you came to learn about Rocky Fork?
I was born and raised in Kingsport, a fairly small town in east Tennessee, surrounded by mountains and rivers. It's an area that was “electrified” by President Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority back in the 1930’s, approximately 20 miles down the road from Bristol—the birthplace of country music. It’s easy to take nature for granted when you grow up in a place so lovely. But now, when I return home from Washington, DC, I’m mesmerized by the landscape I left behind.

My very first job out of college was in a tiny town in Unicoi County, Tennessee, writing copy and designing ads for the local newspaper. Each morning, with a mug of hot coffee, I would drive 30 minutes directly into the Appalachian Mountains to get to the office. During that time, there was a major controversy among residents and government officials about whether a local landowner should sell a prime 9,814-acre tract of land called Rocky Fork to a developer, which would generate tax revenue for the county, or if it should be preserved by the U.S. Forest Service. I drew political cartoons about the “tree huggers” vs. the “developers” and attended numerous town hall meetings set to determine the fate of Rocky Fork. It was then that I first learned about The Conservation Fund—a group that provided bridge funding to agency partners, like the U.S. Forest Service, for the protection of high conservation valued land.

It wasn’t until several years later that I would begin working for the Fund. They were still actively working in Unicoi County to protect the full 9,814 acres of Rocky Fork in perpetuity, while helping the community better understand the value natural areas such as this can provide to the economic base. It was a real full-circle moment for me.

What makes Rocky Fork so unique?
Rocky Fork is a great example of how land conservation and community can, and should, go hand-in-hand. What makes this project stand out is that our staff saw it as more than a land conservation deal. The community needed help recognizing that by saving Rocky Fork, they were also paving the path for Unicoi County to become a top nature-based recreation and tourism destination that would bring in revenue for generations to come, and our Conservation Leadership Network® helped them see the value in that. We worked with leaders from across the community to highlight how Rocky Fork’s natural assets, community character and quality of life could be emphasized to grow sustainable tourism. Rocky Fork perfectly summarizes the Fund’s unique position in our field—we deliver conservation solutions that work for America.

In September 2015, the final piece of Rocky Fork, Rich Mountain, was added to the Rocky Fork State Park. Can you elaborate on how it feels to see the final piece of this project come together?
The completion of Rocky Fork is a huge victory for land conservation, for economic development and for the generations of people who will be able to explore and enjoy this special place. Being from the area and knowing the history of this project makes seeing it come to fruition even more meaningful. I now understand that those beautiful mountains, forests and valleys back home aren’t just protected by chance. I’m grateful for the people who dedicate their careers to doing something that matters, and I am proud to work beside them.

How did you find yourself at The Conservation Fund?
Pretty early on I realized that I wanted my career to be focused around something I really believed in—not just a job that paid the bills. This became clear when I led the creative program for a metro health care organization in Knoxville, Tennessee, and helped create a health fair campaign for under-resourced children. More than 1,000 kids and their parents showed up at the event to enjoy a few hours of fun outside while making sure they were healthy, and my eyes were opened.

A few years later, when I moved to Washington, DC, I had a keen focus on finding a new opportunity that allowed me to grow in my field while promoting something else I care deeply about—connecting people to and protecting the outdoors. My husband works for the National Park Service, so conservation has been a dialogue in our house for as long as I can remember, and so The Conservation Fund (the Fund) has been the perfect fit.

Each year, I have the privilege of creating products like our annual report and annual appeal, both of which highlight the accomplishments we achieve with support from our partners and donors. One of my favorite parts of my job is travelling to project locations to photograph and record the impact of our work on the ground, like the Fund’s first park in an underserved community in Atlanta, or capturing the vast North Coast forests in California. Talking with residents and community members directly affected by our conservation projects always lead to moments I won’t forget.

Learn More

A Bright Future for Rocky Fork
Our work in Tennessee
Conservation Leadership Network
More Face Of This Place