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Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards

NC Wildlife Federation Announces Winners of 57th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards

This article first appeared on ncwf.org.

A renowned sea turtle biologist, educator and policy expert. An advocate for waterfowl hunters and wetlands conservation. An attorney fighting for water quality and environmental justice issues. An organization centered on outdoor industry diversity and minority accessibility. A tree company centered on tree preservation and volunteer-driven efforts to provide free trees to the public.


These are a few of the conservation heroes chosen this year for North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s 57th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards. Honorees include agency professionals, elected officials, volunteers and organizations who have demonstrated a commitment to North Carolina’s wildlife, habitat and natural resources.

“Each year, we’re amazed by the commitment and creativity of North Carolinians working to protect the wildlife, air, water and land we all depend on,” said T. Edward Nickens, awards committee chair. “This year’s conservation heroes are land stewardship champions, water advocates and leaders in the preservation of unique ecosystems — and we’re thrilled to be able to honor them in person at our banquet this year.”

Award recipients, including Wildlife Enforcement and Marine Patrol Officers of the Year, will be honored from 5:45 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11, at Embassy Suites in Cary, NC.

RSVP and purchase tickets for the 57th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards.

“For nearly 60 years, this program has brought together a diverse group of conservationists to highlight the good news about wildlife conservation across the state,” Nickens said. “We hope it inspires others to take a more active role in protecting North Carolina’s natural resources for future generations.”

Meet the 2021 Conservation Achievement Awards Winners
Conservationist of the Year, Walter Clark (Lansing)
For nearly four decades, Clark has dedicated himself to conserving and protecting North Carolina’s natural resources, whether they’re in his backyard or across the state. His long tenure, most recently as executive director of the state’s Land and Water Fund, has centered on managing coastal wetlands, beaches, public trust waters and estuarine shorelines and educating and advocating for natural resource management. Clark’s conservation legacy of overseeing the protection of thousands of acres—from the mountains to the coast—will forever remain on North Carolina’s landscape.

Wildlife Conservationist of the Year, Dr. Matthew H. Godfrey (Beaufort)
A renowned sea turtle biologist, educator, researcher and policy expert, Dr. Godfrey organizes and inspires a thousand-strong force of citizen scientists who monitor, protect, collect data and even rescue sea turtles. His extended “eyes and hands” also facilitate real-time responses by other agencies, land and water managers, scientists and non-profits to unusual occurrences affecting our marine mammals, sea birds and local wildlife.

Sportsman of the Year, Chris Williams (Princeton)
North Carolina native Chris Williams fell in love with waterfowl hunting on the coast early in life, and it’s a passion that continues today. After 11-plus years as the Atlantic Flyway regional manager for Delta Waterfowl, Williams now serves on the front lines of policy and advocacy for waterfowl hunters and wetlands conservation. Working with volunteers and members, he’s helped build Delta’s North Carolina chapters into an influential voice for duck hunters. Additionally, his flyway-wide understanding of both the biology and politics of waterfowl hunting is a significant benefit to his home state.

Land Conservationist of the Year, John Isenhour (Salisbury)
Isenhour is a standout wildlife biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission whose decades of work have immeasurably benefited our state’s native flora and fauna. He has gained a considerable reputation as a leading biologist to consult when managing wildlife and habitat on private lands, and his passion for nature runs deep. His dedication to the resource includes providing landowners with the proper tools and guidance to create quality wildlife habitats based on the best available science. In addition to fieldwork, Isenhour serves on numerous wildlife- and habitat-related committees, educates youth and assists with farm programs.

Water Conservationist of the Year, Chandra Taylor (Durham)
A senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, Taylor specializes in water quality and environmental justice issues. Taylor has had an immense impact on addressing environmental damage to our waterways and the people who live by them. She has been a champion of the Badin Lake cleanup efforts and forced cleanups at contaminated industrial sites, stopping water pollution threatening North Carolina communities. She also ensures lower-wealth communities, communities of color and natural resources aren’t disproportionately harmed.

Forest Conservationist of the Year, William ‘Buck’ Vaughan (Raleigh)
A farmer by birth and a forester by training, Vaughn 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. Vaughn’s 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.

Marine Resource Conservationist of the Year, Rick Sasser (Goldsboro)
Rick Sasser has worked tirelessly for decades to conserve and preserve the coastal marine resources of North Carolina for future generations. Sasser has dedicated countless hours of volunteer time studying, researching, and compiling exhaustive information identifying nursery areas for grey trout and other marine species within Pamlico Sound. He has spent years advocating for better management practices throughout the fisheries, all based upon comprehensive data.

Environmental Educator of the Year, Jonathan Marchal (Asheville)
Marchal is Director of Education at the North Carolina Arboretum and a leader in environmental education. He has exponentially increased youth involvement by developing a curriculum that applies science to outdoor learning and has used partnerships and resources to expand educational programming for school children. Marchal’s work positively impacts teachers and students across the state by applying the outdoors as a classroom while ensuring programming includes traditionally underserved audiences.

Conservation Organization of the Year, Black Folks Camp Too (Brevard)
Founded by entrepreneur Earl B. Hunter Jr., Black Folks Camp Too is mission-oriented to increase diversity in the outdoor industry by making it more accessible and enjoyable for minorities to go camping. Their core principles (sincerity, meaningfulness, measurability and sustainability) help break down barriers and create more inclusive and stronger communities.

Legislator of the Year, John Bell (Goldsboro)
Rep. John Bell is a lifelong sportsman who serves as the NC House Majority Leader. Bell actively works for pragmatic, nature-based solutions to significant resource issues, including sustainable fisheries and ongoing community flooding. To address flood and storm preparedness, he introduced legislation, the Disaster Relief and Mitigation Act. This proactive, coordinated approach includes funding for wetland and floodplain restoration—the first of its kind considered in the state.

Business Conservationist of the Year, Leaf & Limb (Raleigh)
Owner Basil Camu and his company broke the mold when they shifted focus from tree removal to tree preservation and habitat restoration through plantings, healing the soil, and maintaining existing trees for long-term success and wildlife. Leaf & Limb employees have served nearly 4,000 volunteer hours cleaning up and enhancing the local community through the company’s Project Pando initiative, which has evolved into a volunteer-driven tree farm providing free trees to the public to improve local ecosystems.

Natural Resources Scientist of the Year, Dr. Nils Peterson (Raleigh)
Dr. Peterson, a professor in the College of Natural Resources at NC State University, specializes in Human Dimensions of Conservation Biology. His teaching and research in the field are unique, often ground-breaking and highly regarded by his peers. Peterson’s research makes connections between people, wildlife and the environment. He develops and applies solutions to issues that further promote positive relationships between people and nature.

Wildlife Volunteer of the Year, Ernie McLaney (Charlotte)
McLaney lives and breathes conservation and sustainability every day while relentlessly donating his time, energy and resources to preserving wild lives and wild places in North Carolina. McLaney is constantly exploring ways to nourish the environment, spread awareness to future generations and promote sustainable practices. Whether it’s by contacting local politicians, picking up roadside trash or leading kayak and hiking trips, he is a tireless advocate for living things with no voice of their own.

Public Lands Conservationist of the Year, Hugh Blackwell (Valdese)
A true “trailblazer,” NC Rep. Blackwell has spent years inspiring North Carolinians to experience wild places for themselves and is a champion in the General Assembly for increasing public trails and state parks. His work to establish the Fonta Flora State Trail and others raised the number of state trails from six to nine while preserving thousands of acres in the process.

NCWF Chapter of the Year, Concord Wildlife Alliance (Concord)
A global pandemic and cancellation of all in-person events was no match for the creativity and adaptability of the Concord Wildlife Alliance. Collaborating with local partner organizations and quickly pivoting to virtual presentations and outings allowed the chapter to thrive seamlessly. Members successfully created and maintained wildlife habitats and natural resources by collecting trash, planting native trees and shrubs, certifying backyard and schoolyard habitats, and engaging the community on conservation topics.

NCWF Affiliate of the Year, Cape Fear Garden Club (Wilmington)
Since 1925, the Cape Fear Garden Club has been sowing seeds — metaphorically and literally — throughout Wilmington. During the pandemic, the club focused on its “roots,” planting organic and sustainable backyard and community gardens filled with herbs, flowers and plants that benefit birds, pollinators and wildlife. Members also created videos to inspire those who want to establish healthy habitats, attract wildlife and turn their outdoor space into a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

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