Winkie Mackay-Smith believes land conservationists should never rely on just one program to achieve their goals, or as she puts it, “You need a belt with your suspenders.”
She saw it early on as a 40-year advocate in her home of Clarke County. “At the county level, you have a board of supervisors that determines the zoning. That means you’re only one county election cycle away from possibly losing a low-density or rural designation. You have to lock it in at the state and federal levels, too.”
Mackay-Smith has shored up support for land conservation by serving on the board of the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), the Clarke County Planning Commission, and the Clarke County Board of Zoning Appeals.
Her experiences with PEC and with the county led her to help found the Clarke County Easement Authority (CEA) in 2002. According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation website, Clarke County is one of 22 Virginia counties that protect open space in perpetuity by acquiring easements on private land. The Clarke County CEA has been one of the most successful, leveraging county-level agreements with federal and state grants (including the VOF-administered Preservation Trust Fund). This money comes with further legal defenses, so that the CEA’s “belt and suspenders” approach has permanently protected 8,019 acres of the county with 135 easements so far.
Add to that the lands in Clarke that are protected with easements held by VOF and other entities, and a total of 24 percent of the county’s land mass is permanently protected. Only nearby Fauquier County’s percentage is higher.
Mackay-Smith’s vision was key to the CEA’s success. “She saw that there was an opportunity for the county to have a slightly different role than larger land conservation entities,” says Alison Teetor, Clarke County’s natural resource manager, who staffs the CEA and works with various partner agencies to protect ground and surface water in the county. “The county is able to take smaller parcels and specify different criteria for conserved land so that more landowners can participate.”
Mackay-Smith’s own family’s land is protected under easement as well. “You can’t preach all that if you don’t do it yourself,” she says. Her home is on Greenwood Farm, one of several properties totaling more than 2,100 acres the Mackay-Smith family has placed under easement with VOF starting in the late 1970s.
Although she retired in 2014, Mackay-Smith is still active in the county’s land conservation efforts, says Teetor. “She still encourages landowners with a very direct but appropriate approach. I feel fortunate to have her on our team.”
As her work continues, Mackay-Smith’s forward-looking conservation vision goes beyond the single parcel of saved land. “It’s not my property or your property, it’s how everything fits together,” she says. “It’s the entire biome.”