Passing on Conservation Values

"Exposure to nature early on through my family has been important in forming my own conservation values," says Elizabeth Lackey, associate director of philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee

How does a person grow to care about nature? Family bonds and special places seem to play a big role.

Elizabeth Lackey grew up playing in the woods around her family’s home in the small Tennessee town of Savannah. “In fact, I had to walk through the woods to get to my best friend’s house, and I went there nearly every day,” she says. That walk probably started her on the path to working for The Nature Conservancy. Today she serves as Associate Director of Philanthropy for the Tennessee Chapter.

But her father, John Ross, no doubt played a key role in her career choice as well. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he served as a trustee for the Tennessee Chapter, and though he is an attorney, he also manages family farmland as a working timber forest and deals with conservation issues on a regular basis.

Nevertheless, both John and Elizabeth say that the path to embracing environmental protection has been one that was not at all clear to either of them when they were younger. Yet deep down, both John and Elizabeth share the connection not only of family bonds but also to a special place—the Ross family farm that John now manages—which seems to provide the wellspring for their love of the outdoors.

Rosses have lived in the Savannah area since the early 1800s. In 1881, John Ross’s great-grandfather, Ike, bought land that became the start of family landholdings that now amount to about 7,500 rural acres, much of it now managed for timber. John Ross grew up in the town of Savannah, but he spent countless hours wandering the woods and paddling in the creeks on the spacious property. “We spent weekends there throughout my childhood,” he recalls.

Like his father and his grandfather before him, John Ross became a lawyer. Still, the old family farm retained a special place in his heart and his life. Starting in the 1970s, he became increasingly involved in the management of the property and its timber, along with his uncle. Taking care of the land helped raise his environmental consciousness, says Ross, but taking up cross-country biking and then mountain biking (which he still does) may have done so even more. “With all the biking I’ve done around the state, I’m pretty sure I’ve now visited every state park in Tennessee,” he says with a chuckle.

In the 1990s, a friend, Con Welch, encouraged John to become involved with The Nature Conservancy and accept a role on the board of trustees. Learning more about the Conservancy deepened his environmental commitment.

“I remember asking my father, when I was in college: ‘Why are you involved with this group?’” says Elizabeth. “And he said, ‘The Nature Conservancy is scientific in making its conservation decisions, it’s non-confrontational and it’s not involved in politics. This organization is about bringing people together to do good conservation work.’  My father’s opinion of the Conservancy had a big impact on me.”

John made a point of sharing his Conservancy experience with Elizabeth, inviting her to member hikes, canoe floats, board meetings and fundraisers. “The more I learned, the better the organization looked,” she says.

In 2008, Elizabeth joined the staff of the Tennessee Chapter, working in the Nashville office. “By that point it really was a dream come true to work for the Conservancy,” she says. “I knew by then what the organization stood for, and I really believe in the work.”

For his part, John says, “My philosophy of conservation evolved as I became more involved with the homeplace and with The Nature Conservancy. As I became more knowledgeable about the work of the Conservancy, I realized that I wanted to manage the forests and streams on my lands in ways that protected the biodiversity.”

In 2003, John hired an environmental firm to do a biological survey of his property. The survey found the property to be “exceptional” in its species richness, with occurrences of 51 species of fish, 33 reptiles and amphibians, and rare plants such as Price’s potato bean and beaked trout lily. John Ross is not only a careful steward of his land; he’s also a generous host. Over the years, John has invited various outdoors groups, such as the Tennessee Trails Association, to enjoy the beauties of the Ross Forests. In 2009, John was honored as the Forest Conservationist of the Year by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation.

Elizabeth says that to this day her favorite place to go is to visit the family farm, now with her husband Gil joining her. “I think exposure to nature early on through my family has been important in forming my own conservation values,” says Elizabeth.

John agrees and adds this reflection: “The conservation ethic is really part of a person’s overall ethical consciousness. If you have an ethical belief system, then I believe the conservation ethic goes right along with it.”


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