By Brenna Thompson, Senior Land Protection Manager East
In TLC’s Annual Report and other publications, we often focus on the projects, and rarely highlight the hardworking and talented staff who make these accomplishments possible. One of TLC’s greatest unsung heroes is Leigh Ann Hammerbacher, Director of Land Protection and Stewardship East, who has been with TLC for an incredible 16 years.
Developing a passion for resource conservation
Leigh Ann first began her career at TLC in 2007 as our Conservation Planner and now is an integral leader of our team. Originally from Guilford County, she grew up exploring the creeks and woods of the Piedmont, which instilled a great passion for resource conservation.
During her tenure at TLC, Leigh Ann has used her vision, dedication, and passion for her work to help double the pace of conservation across the Triangle. She focuses her efforts on land protection, planning, and stewardship in Wake and Johnston counties, but also helps coordinate partnerships and preserve planning efforts throughout our region. Leigh Ann has championed the protection of local watersheds, historic farmland, and vital natural habitats in some of North Carolina’s fastest developing areas. Her deep knowledge of conservation in North Carolina allows her to weave strategies out of red tape and chisel masterpieces out of apparent stonewalls.
Protecting one of the last wilderness areas in the southeastern United States
One of her greatest achievements at TLC has been conserving Brogden Bottomlands — an incredible 1,120-acre property in the Neuse River Lowgrounds of Johnston County, which has been described as one of the ‘last vast wilderness areas in the southeastern United States.’ Leigh Ann spearheaded TLC’s purchase of this property in 2019 after learning that the landowners were ready to sell, and fast. A complex project, acquiring Brogden Bottomlands involved quickly securing a zero-interest loan to purchase the property, and then raising $3 million in grants from the NC Land and Water Fund, NC Division of Parks and Recreation, Johnston County, and the Environmental Enhancement Grant Program to pay back that loan. This year, Brogden Bottomlands was transferred to NC Division of Parks and Recreation after they recognized it as an ideal site for a future state park and part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. In TLC’s 40-year history, this is the single largest property we’ve ever conserved and represents one of our crowning achievements.
Working to bring active farming to a TLC public preserve
Another important accomplishment to note is Leigh Ann’s instrumental role in the acquisition and opening of the Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve in Wake and Johnston County. TLC’s newest public preserve hosts one of the largest multi-use trail systems in the Triangle and is also TLC’s first public preserve to have active farming activities on-site. Leigh Ann not only led TLC’s effort to acquire this property, but also spent seven years readying it to open to the public. Today the Williamson Preserve is a beloved recreation area used by over 20,000 people annually and an active farm where five farmers are practicing regenerative agriculture.
None of this would have been possible without Leigh Ann’s incredible leadership and perseverance over the course of many years, and without the strong relationships she built with partner organizations and landowners. When she recognizes the importance of a piece of property, she has the patience of perpetuity and the power of persistence in her pursuit of strategic conservation, which has paid off in thousands of acres that will be conserved forevermore thanks to her efforts.
Leigh Ann’s work has had a significant enduring impact on protecting open space across the Triangle and connecting thousands of people to nature. TLC is immensely grateful for all her work over the past 16 years, and we can’t wait to see what she will accomplish next.