July 20, 2021|By The Conservation Fund| Community Development

Celebrating a True Conservation Visionary

When Mikki Sager began work at The Conservation Fund’s North Carolina office in 1990, we were a small organization with few employees and a big vision: to demonstrate that economic development and environmental goals are compatible. At that point, the organization was focused primarily on land acquisition and wasn’t yet participating in on-the-ground community-based work. Mikki saw an opportunity to combine the two greatest assets any community has—its natural capital and its people—by integrating a pathway toward social justice into our approach to conservation. 

7 19 21 Conetoe Family Life Center North Carolina Whitney Flanagan 089Mikki Sager examining the harvest at Conetoe Family Life Center in North Carolina. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

To help you understand Mikki’s vision, a little history is in order. Eastern North Carolina is a place of immense natural beauty and significant economic poverty. In Tyrrell County, which is the least populated county in North Carolina and the last place you drive through before you get to the Outer Banks, the lack of economic opportunity meant that its young people had to leave to find jobs. An imbalance in political power, with white people controlling nearly every aspect of political power even though the population of Tyrrell County was 40% Black, was a significant factor in keeping the county in a state of economic decline and a large segment of its population below the poverty line. 
7 19 21 RCP2019 UITC 18
The Conservation Fund was working in this area of the state, having acquired 104,000 acres of peat bogs that had been slated for a golf course development, that we later donated it to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. However, if no visitors came to spend time (and money) at these preserves, then the people of Tyrrell County would not realize any economic benefit from the newly conserved lands. Mikki saw an opportunity to work with the community to ensure tourism dollars flowed through the area and that residents benefited.

“What Mikki had in mind was a bold, new vision for conservation—combining bottom-up community revitalization with our traditional top-down acquisition of critical lands. She had a plan for launching and growing her groundbreaking program and, to be honest, she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”

- Larry Selzer, President and CEO

And so, with Mikki’s energy, passion and persistence driving this vision forward, the work that is now the Resourceful Communities Program (RCP) was launched to help economically and socially distressed communities in eastern North Carolina protect and build on their natural resources. 

She started a team and spent the first ten years developing RCP’s Triple Bottom Line approach—community economic development, social justice and environmental stewardship. They listened and learned from communities to understand the challenges and barriers faced by their partners. RCP tested and tweaked conservation and community development strategies to help partners and communities—that had been excluded for centuries—create new economies. What started in eastern North Carolina slowly expanded west and south throughout the state and beyond.

7 19 21 Sandhills family heritage association resourceful communities steve orr 59Photo by Steve Orr.

Above all, RCP’s values are rooted in centering people in all that it does, working in authentic relationships of trust, and helping partner communities build their own power. 

The key to sustaining our natural resources is in engaging authentically with people and communities, and building local capacity to create strong economies, grow equitable communities and support environmental stewardship for all.

Thirty years later, RCP is more than a program—it is a network of 500+ partners and a movement that supports conservation as part of a larger vision led by Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC). This year, RCP will pass the milestone of having raised and invested over $10 million in re-grant funds for community groups through the small grants program, with over 30,000 acres protected by The Conservation Fund as a direct result of RCP’s work. The first two Black-owned community forests in the southern United States—the Sandyfield community forest and McIntosh S.E.E.D. Community Forest—were completed with help from RCP. And RCP’s national food sovereignty initiative, which was rooted in the premise that communities couldn’t control their food supplies (food sovereignty) if they couldn’t control the land, helped 20 BIPOC communities acquire over 2,500 acres that they had never had access to before. 

“The community forest has been an asset for us to use as an educational tool. Landowners, especially minority landowners, may have been less engaged with the conservation effort but we’ve been able to provide hands-on field experience and training on the site. It’s been a benefit for community members.” 

– John Littles, Executive Director of McIntosh S.E.E.D

7 19 21 McSEED Georgia Steve Orr 189Left to right: Mikki Sager joined by John Littles and Cheryl Peterson of McIntosh S.E.E.D. Photo by Steve Orr. 

There is so much more to do and to learn, but we are motivated by this work in rural and urban communities with people who may not previously have had an invitation to make decisions about their future and the future of their land. 

As Mikki retires from The Conservation Fund, we want to express our gratitude for her inspirational vision and leadership. She has been a friend, a colleague, and a teacher, always challenging the status quo and pushing into new territory. She forever changed The Conservation Fund, and indeed the field of conservation, and that is a legacy to be proud of. 

“There are no programs like Resourceful Communities in other conservation organizations, and I am eternally grateful to The Conservation Fund’s Board and senior management and all the colleagues that have supported RCP in the past and as it moves into the future. As I move into my next phase, I am going to continue working with communities, my true passion. To say thank you is not enough—there really aren’t words—so I will say goodbye, not farewell.”

- Mikki Sager

Written By

The Conservation Fund

At The Conservation Fund, we make conservation work for America. By creating solutions that make environmental and economic sense, we are redefining conservation to demonstrate its essential role in our future prosperity. Top-ranked for efficiency and effectiveness, we have worked in all 50 states since 1985 to protect more than 8.5 million acres of land.