Outdoor preservation a way of life for PAC director Mary Walter

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, December 25, 2014


By Mark Schmerling

Over the past 25 years, Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC), headquartered in Tryon, has preserved over 8,530 acres of our area’s natural resources, offered educational programs, and hosted enjoyable organized hikes to notable landmarks.

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PAC’s brochure notes: “PAC is a not-for-profit land conservation organization created to conserve the scenic, agricultural, natural and historic resources of the North Pacolet River and foothills region.”

As such, the group works with other local land trusts.

PAC is closing out 2014 by helping permanently preserve two properties, totaling about 100 acres, with conservation easements.

PAC’s motto, “Saving the places we love,” reflects an ongoing endeavor.

Mary Walter has served as PAC’s executive director for over a year and a half, after serving as director of Spartanburg Area Conservancy (SPACE), a similar group, for 19 years.

In her time at SPACE, where she worked with other area land trusts, Walter, who is originally from Greenville, got to visit Polk County, and became smitten with the topography and natural beauty she found here.

“I loved these mountains. It does a soul good,” Walter reflected.

“When you preserve the land,” Walter notes, “you’re protecting the natural resources, and protecting the habitat for flora and fauna.”

Land preservation also benefits taxpayers, as open land requires less tax money than land turned into houses, or commercial ventures. Part of that comes from the price paid for land to be conserved.

Landowners who donate their property to PAC receive an appraisal of their property. For tax purposes, they can then deduct the difference between what they are paid for their land (which they can continue to use as long as they live) and the price that a housing developer or one with similar intentions might pay.

Walter said that learning about a given parcel encourages her to learn more about neighboring land.

While still at SPACE, Walter admired the work that PAC did, and the land they preserved. One difference, though, is that of the land itself. Around Spartanburg, much of the land is flat and already paved.

“In Polk County, there’s so much beauty to protect,” she said.

She noted that so many people move to Polk County for that beauty.

“We need to keep it that way,” she stated.

While with SPACE, Walter learned more about PAC, and its accomplishments and philosophy.

Now as PAC’s executive director, Walter walks the walk. In fact, a bumper sticker on her car states: ‘No Farms, No Food.”

While a young woman, Walter received her love of the land from a good source.

“I really credit my paternal grandmother for my earliest exposure to conservation,” Walter reflected. Her grandmother was then a member of The Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s largest land preservation forces. For over 40 years, Walter, too, has been a Nature Conservancy member.

“I’ve always loved being outdoors. I’ve always loved to learn.”

Even a given area or trail is constantly changing,” Walter noted, varying with the weather, the season.

“If you keep your senses open, you can always learn more.”

Walter noted that PAC has its own fine resource in Pam Torlina, its only full-time employee, and PAC’s director of stewardship and land protection.

“We are really lucky to have Pam,” Walter noted. “She’s a gifted scientist.” Walter also described Torlina as a hard worker.

Torlina is also PAC’s hike leader.

PAC hikes take enthusiasts to places of natural beauty, both in Polk County, and beyond, including the Smokies. A recent PAC hike took climbers to Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest point.

PAC also offers educational programs at the Anne Elizabeth Suratt Nature Center and at  Walnut Creek Preserve, north of Mill Spring.

Now that PAC’s 25th birthday has come and gone, Walter promises that the organization will continue to celebrate as PAC continues to acquire and protect open land, and educates the public on the value of open land and clean streams.

Land acquisition would be impossible without landowners who are willing to put their faith in others.

“We’re grateful to the landowners who entrust us,” Walter acknowledged. “They are entrusting us with the long-term responsibility,” she said, of caring for that land.

“The most important word would be ‘grateful,’” Walter decided.

Walter pointed out that in trying to preserve open space, “We don’t ever try to pressure anybody.” She noted that some individuals who donate land might have thought it over for years before taking that step.

With the help of a grant from Polk County Community Foundation, and with a botanist, PAC will be conduct a survey of flora and fauna in Polk County, where they’ll attempt to identify important species in this area.

An important area of interest for PAC, and for many other groups and individuals, is the health of riparian (streamside) areas, and how these areas affect the overall health of streams.

Walter noted that through its really strong land committee, PAC wishes to reach out and educate landowners on the importance of conservation.

She added, “I think that all citizens need to know where their closest water is.” She recommends that they “follow it and find out what your watershed ‘address’ is. Whatever we do to our water affects everyone who lives downstream.”

Walter can be reached at 828-859-5060 or at her office at 850 N. Trade Street, Tryon.