Safe Passage facilitator Jeffrey Hunter named Conservationist of Year

hard work; play harder. This catchy philosophy of work-life balance can be aptly ascribed to Jeffrey Hunter of Burnsville, an avid long-distance hiker and fan of the Grateful Dead who was recently named Wildlife Conservationist of the Year in the North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s Governor’s Conservation Awards.

A senior program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association, Hunter leads efforts to protect public lands like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Since 2017, he has also facilitated a public-private collaboration of two dozen federal, state, Tribal, and non-governmental organizations known today as Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project.

Jeffrey Hunter of National Parks Conservation Association has been named Wildlife Conservationist of the Year in the North Carolina Wildlife Federation's Governor's Conservation Awards.  He will be honored at an awards banquet Sept. 10 in Cary alongside 18 other award recipients committed to conserving the state's wildlife, habitat, and natural resources.  Learn more at ncwf.org.

“In July, my organization (NPCA) and Wildlands Network published the results of an intensive three-year study of animal movement patterns along I-40 between Asheville and Knoxville,” Hunter said. “This 86-page report offers up research-driven recommendations for state departments of transportation to make a 28-mile stretch of highway more permeable for wildlife and safer for drivers.”

Replacements on the Way: Keys to wildlife crossing success on I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge

► More to Come: Stage is set for wildlife enhancements on I-40

A native of New York with a BA in environmental studies from SUNY’s Empire State College, Hunter had spent 20 years in the telecommunications industry when a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail inspired him to realign his career with his conservation values. He left Verizon and headed for Chattanooga in 2003 to lead the American Hiking Society’s Southern Appalachian Initiative. Hunter spent time at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, collaborated with the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, and directed Wild South’s Tennessee Wild project, ultimately securing wilderness designation for some 20,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest.

Don Barger, southeast regional director for National Parks Conservation Association from 1992 to 2019, hired Jeff Hunter in 2015 to work with multiple federal and state agencies and with regional conservation allies to preserve wildlife connectivity in the Southern Appalachian region.  Barger is shown here leading a small group discussion at a 2018 stakeholder group meeting of the Pigeon River Gorge collaborative, which was later named Safe Passage.

In 2013, he ventured west to direct California’s Bodie Hills Conservation Partnership, restoring sage grouse habitat in a high-desert environment on the edge of the Eastern Sierra. He and his wife, Caara, were actively involved with the Mono County Search and Rescue Team and were putting down roots in their new community when Hunter learned of an intriguing opportunity.

Don Barger, the southeast regional director for NPCA from 1992 to 2019, had a vision of protecting wildlife in the lush, rugged terrain near the Smokies. With high hopes for restoring severe wildlife corridors, Barger lured Hunter back from the west in 2015 to “maximize our last best chances to preserve connectivity within the living landscape of the Southern Appalachian region.”

Jeff Hunter had spent 20 years in the telecommunications industry when a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail inspired him to realign his career with his conservation values.  Now a senior program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association, he facilitates Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing, which has been the catalyst for a paradigm shift in regional attitudes toward road ecology in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee.  Jeff and his wife, Caara, live in Burnsville.

Hunter — who was backpacking the Superior Hiking Trail somewhere in Minnesota when his new job was announced — soon set about reconnecting with his eastern US network. That included Hugh Irwin, author of “Return the Great Forest: A Conservation Vision for the Southern Appalachian Region,” the central document of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition.

“SAFC’s vision identified core areas and key corridors that made up a conservation network — a network that could be even better if these core areas were protected and corridors were made more robust,” said Irwin. “This involved addressing highway and road issues.”

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