October 1, 2021|By The Conservation Fund| Forests

Three Cheers for North Carolina’s Forest Conservationist of the Year

For nearly 60 years, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF) has honored individuals and organizations who demonstrate a commitment to North Carolina’s wildlife, habitat and natural resources with their Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards. This year’s 57th annual award recipients included The Conservation Fund’s Director of Forestry, Buck Vaughan, who was honored as Forest Conservationist of the Year. 

The NWCA had this to say about why Buck was chosen to receive this honor:

“A farmer by birth and a forester by training, Buck is an expert in forest conservation, protection and acquisition. His work focuses on advancing forest conservation, protecting large-scale working forests, strengthening rural economies, protecting military installation encroachment areas, and supporting landowners and communities. His deep understanding of the land, combined with innovative science, technology and finance applications, helps protect and conserve working forests resources now and for future generations.”

Buck in forestBuck Vaughan. Photo by The Conservation Fund.


When word spread through The Conservation Fund that Buck would be receiving this award, many of his colleagues shared their sentiments:

“Buck is one of the most respected conservation professionals out there. It has always been in his DNA to do good conservation work. When you have a chance to see how Buck’s mind works from a financial and technical perspective you see that he is really gifted. I’ve been working with him since I started at The Conservation Fund and I learn something new from him every day. I’m really proud of him.”

- Brian Dangler, Vice President, Director, Working Forest Fund®


“This is a well-deserved recognition of Buck’s contribution to forest conservation in North Carolina, and across the country. In addition to his work with The Conservation Fund, he has remained engaged with his alma mater NC State University providing regular guest lectures, educating the next generation of foresters in the state. Buck has been a tremendous resource in terms of education and professional development, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have him as a boss, mentor and friend.”

- Kevin Harnish, Manager, Portfolio Analysis, Working Forest Fund®



We asked Buck to share more about his conservation journey and his work with The Conservation Fund. 

How does it feel to be named North Carolina’s Forest Conservationist of the Year—the state’s highest award in this category? 

Buck: I am extremely proud to be recognized. I was able to share the news with my father shortly before he passed, and his pride is a memory that I will always treasure. Mostly, I am humbled by the award, and I feel that I am the recipient of an honor that should be shared by our entire team. 

Buck Vaughan Buck Vaughan (center) joined by Cameron Ingram, Executive Director North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (left) and John Hairr, Chairman North Carolina Wildlife Federation (right) at the Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards ceremony on September 11, 2021, in Cary, North Carolina. Photo courtesy NWCF. 


What spurred your interest in conservation and forestry? 

Buck: My father was a farmer, and I spent much of my early childhood free to roam the woods and fields on our farm. The most important thing for my dad was the legacy he was leaving for his children, and for him that was being a good steward of the land. I am proud to be able to work in a field that allows me to continue to abide by that land ethic. I hope that our work helps to provide my children and others the opportunity to revel in the wonder of nature. 


How did you start working for The Conservation Fund?

Buck: I began my work with The Conservation Fund as an intern during graduate school in 2004, and I’ve been with the Fund ever since. I was immediately drawn to The Conservation Fund’s dual charter of environmental conservation and sustainable community/economic development. 

My interest in this approach was encouraged by my experience working at the Daniel Boone National Forest. Every Friday, we would host a public stakeholder meeting to provide input for the forest’s management plan update. Inevitably, one side of the table would be occupied by environmental activists and the other would be occupied representatives of the forest products industry. Unfortunately, there was little room for reasonable compromise during those conversations. The Conservation Fund’s approach that considered the economic and ecological impact of land management resonated, and I was determined to learn more. I proceeded to leave about 20 voicemails for Mikki Sager, the Fund’s recently retired Director of Resourceful Communities, trying to schedule a conversation. Eventually, I was able to convince Mikki to hire me for the summer. 

As a native North Carolinian of several generations, I thought I knew my state as well as anyone. But as Mikki ushered me across the state, I learned about places and communities that I had never heard of before. The communities that Mikki sought out had been ignored and passed over for decades, and I realized just how little I truly knew. That experience broadened my horizons, and it forever changed my view of the world. I hope that I will always work to incorporate the lessons I learned that summer in my work and everyday life. 


What’s the most meaningful conservation project you’ve worked on? 

Buck: Actually, it’s the first project I worked on. Managing the Palmetto-Peartree Preserve was an incredible experience. I was able to incorporate the silvicultural lessons from forestry school as well as work with a community to capitalize on the beauty of their surrounding landscape. I made lifelong friends, and I felt the pride of working to provide a positive impact to a community for the first time. 

I am also proud to be part of the team that created Hoke Community Forest—the first community forest in North Carolina. Through Mikki Sager’s continued effort in Hoke County, and Will Allen’s work with the Department of Defense, we were able to acquire a property north of Raeford, North Carolina. Through state and federal funding, we were able to donate the land to Hoke County as the first community forest in the state. In addition to the multiple recreational opportunities the property provides for the local community—including hiking, biking, horseback riding and paddling—the management of Hoke Community Forest will provide revenue to the county that far exceeds the property tax revenue that the county had been collecting on the property. 

Hoke Forest NC c Natalie AbbassiHoke Community Forest. Photo by Natalie Abbassi.


Congratulations, Buck, on this well-earned award. It truly could not have been given to a more deserving person. The Conservation Fund is fortunate to have you on our Working Forest Fund® team since it began a decade ago, helping to ensure at-risk forests are never broken apart or degraded, forever protecting their multiple, life-sustaining benefits.


Want to learn more about the Working Forest Fund®

Why We Need the Working Forest Fund by Brian Dangler

How the Working Forest Fund Identifies and Protects Working Forests by Buck Vaughan

Economic Benefits of the Working Forest Fund by Kevin Harnish

Completing the Cycle: How the Working Forest Fund Keeps Forests Working and Protected by Bethany Olmstead