Conservationist Spotlight: Mike Leonard

We are delighted to share a recent article profiling Mike Leonard, chairman of the board of directors of The Conservation Fund and Cane to Cattail Peak hiker. People like Mike help to preserve and protect our lands for generations to come. We hope you will enjoy reading (below)!

Mike Leonard (pictured right) is the chairman of the board of directors for The Conservation Fund.

Read below for the original News & Observer article or click here.

Tar Heel of the Week: Mike Leonard conserves land across Southeast August 2, 2014

 — Mike Leonard’s first camping trip may not have been successful, but it was certainly memorable. As a 7-year-old growing up outside of Charlotte, Leonard had his brother throw a quilt over a small swing set in the family’s backyard while their parents were out for the evening.

The “trip” was short lived. When his parents returned home later that night, his father made him go back inside.

“It infuriated me,” Leonard says. “I wasn’t a bit scared to sleep down there by myself.”

The failed camping attempt did not mark the end to Leonard the outdoorsman. Now 61, the Winston-Salem lawyer and career conservationist has come a long way from the makeshift tent.

On July 25, Leonard was named chairman of the board of directors of The Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit group that has preserved more than 7 million acres in the United States and 200,000 in North Carolina. He became the first North Carolina resident to lead the board.

“It’s great to have North Carolinians leading national conservation organizations,” says Bill Holman, N.C. state director of The Conservation Fund. “It brings more attention to the conservation efforts going on across North Carolina.”

Work outside the job

Growing up, Leonard studied the history of natural parks and can still recite the founders of most national parks.

Much of this knowledge can be attributed to two books he received on his eighth birthday. He still has the books, written by Irving Melbo.

“People ask, ‘Where did you develop this interest?’ I really can’t remember being without it,” he says.

After graduating from the UNC School of Law in 1978, Leonard knew he needed to do something beyond his law career. Channeling his love for the outdoors, and some advice his father gave him, he began working with various conservation groups.

“He told me, ‘For you, buying a house or car – achieving that level of success – is a given. You have to do more.’ I naturally gravitated toward land conservation because I was just passionate about it,” Leonard says. “If you’re going to be a successful person, you’ve got to do something greater for the community.”

In 1988, his first project with The Conservation Fund involved linking Alabama’s Pinhoti National Recreation Trail to the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Twenty years later, the project succeeded, and the Appalachian Trail now extends 400 additional miles.

Since the Pinhoti project, Leonard has served in various roles within The Conservation Fund. He was on the advisory committee from 1994 to 2004 and joined the board of directors that year. In 2006, he was chosen as vice-chairman of the board of directors and late last month became chairman.

Raising money is a large part of the job, and Holman says it’s one of Leonard’s many skills.

“He’s been very successful at raising private money,” Holman says. “He is very effective on the board and has risen up through the ranks, so we’re proud of him.”

Finding new state parks

Formed in 1985, The Conservation Fund aims to balance environmental preservation through sustaining land, providing loans to small green businesses and designing green infrastructure.

Projects are a mix of a conservation group or Leonard pursuing a goal on his own or being contacted by people who own the land.

“The landowners have to be willing, and I’ve had a lot more success than failure,” he says.

Two of the successes, Grandfather Mountain and Chimney Rock State Parks, have been major additions to public lands in North Carolina.

In the case of Chimney Rock, Leonard stepped into existing negotiations. A conservation group and the Morse family, who owned Chimney Rock, were having a difficult time agreeing on a deal.

“I got a call from the lawyer representing the Morses.” Leonard says. “He said, ‘This deal between the two has reached loggerheads. Can you and The Conservation Fund get involved?’”

Leonard was able to secure $2 million in private donations to help fund the $24 million, 996-acre Chimney Rock State Park in 2007. More than double that land would be acquired just a year later with Grandfather Mountain.

Leonard was friends with Hugh Morton, the owner of Grandfather Mountain. After Morton died in 2006, Leonard mentioned the future of the mountain to Morton’s family. Following a series of negotiations spearheaded by Leonard, North Carolina closed on the purchase of the park for $12 million in 2009.

“Grandfather Mountain and Chimney Rock are now open to the public in large part because of him,” Holman says. “Mike has a gift of determining what the landowner’s wishes are to strike a good deal for both parties.”

Leonard’s negotiation skills have come in handy.

“All lawyers develop a skill set to figure out a strategy and approach for dealing with issues and problems,” Leonard says. “You’ve got to look at something and go from point A to point B, visualize the solution and get yourself to it.”

A project Leonard had his eye on since high school has been the linking of Crowders Mountain State Park and Kings Mountain National Military Park west of Charlotte. To link the 2,200 acres dividing the two parks, Leonard needed to discover how many people owned the land. It came as a surprise.

“One family owned the 2,000 acres needed to connect the two parks,” he says. “I only had to work with one family and get it done.”

Usually, a deal will take longer to pass when dealing with multiple owners because one family can hold the process up. The magic, Leonard said, lies in the approach.

“You can’t go in demanding and tell people what you’re going to do with their land,” Leonard says, pounding a table. “You have to go in and approach it like, ‘Here’s an idea, are you interested?’”

More often than not, they are.

‘A second career’

Leonard has visited hundreds if not thousands of parks in his lifetime, but it didn’t take him long to name his favorite: Grandfather Mountain.

“It’s been exceedingly special to me for my whole life,” he says. “My father would tell me if we would go to the mountains he knew I would pitch a fit if we didn’t go to Grandfather Mountain.”

It’s that unbridled enthusiasm and joy that drives his voluntary conservation work, something he considers a second career.

“I am so appreciative of my wife and daughters,” Leonard says. “Having two careers absorbs a huge amount of your time, and they put up with me doing that.”

That sacrifice has paid off, Holman says.

“He’s visionary in protecting North Carolina’s icons,” he says. “There are too many contributions to count.”

Know someone who should be Tar Heel of the Week? Contact us at or find Tar Heel of the Week on Facebook.

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