Elizabeth Underwood, executive director of the New River Conservancy

Elizabeth Underwood, newly appointed executive director of the New River Conservancy.

WEST JEFFERSON — Combining her passions for paddling waters and nonprofit work, Elizabeth Underwood is looking to bring her experience in fundraising, nonprofit management and advocacy to her position as the new executive director of the New River Conservancy.

New River Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the waters, woodlands and wildlife of the New River Watershed. While the New River is the nation’s newest national park at the New River Gorge Park and Preserve in West Virginia, the river flows upward from its headwaters on the border of Alleghany and Ashe counties in North Carolina, and is widely regarded as one of the five oldest rivers in the world.

A North Carolina native, Underwood studied at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and began her career at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. After UNC Asheville, Underwood and her husband moved to Arkansas for graduate school. While receiving her master’s in higher education and doctorate degree in public policy, Underwood worked for the University of Arkansas alumni office. Successfully raising unprecedented donations for the university as well as representing higher education interests at the state legislature, Underwood became well versed in public policy and political advocacy.

Paying her own way through graduate school, Underwood secured an assistantship with the Arkansas Alumni Association, a nonprofit. She worked with the alumni association for a total of seven years, during which she participated in the university’s first $1 billion campaign. Underwood described the campaign as incredible.

“Back in 2004, we were the first university in the Southeastern Conference to complete a billion dollar campaign,” Underwood said.

Before finishing her master’s, the University of Arkansas Alumni Association hired her as the assistant director of outreach programs where she oversaw all the alumni chapters in the nation. Underwood expanded the number of chapters across the country.

“(The role was) a great opportunity to really learn about board governments: bylaws, fundraising, volunteer management,” Underwood explained.

Additionally, in 2010 she had the opportunity to create the alumni association as the executive director of alumni affairs at a local community college that was transitioning to a four-year university, now known as the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. She said that the skills she learned in the roles are transferable skills to the New River Conservancy, where the organization has a national board and many volunteers who “help with our board of directors, (and) help us fundraise because of their love for the New River.”

While completing her doctorate dissertation on legislative advocacy, Underwood expanded her work in higher education to include government relations and advocacy. Representing the interests of the University of Arkansas, Underwood was tapped by the chancellor of government relations to go to the state legislature. Reading bills, monitoring legislation, and learning, in her words, “how to work the system,” Underwood described the mentorship she received from Chancelor Paul Beran and Vice Chancellor for University Relations Arleene Breaux and her promotion to associate vice chancellor of government and university relations. Underwood, however, wanted to return to North Carolina.

“I would say the mountains were calling me home,” she recalled.

Underwood was recruited to be the senior director of the UNC Asheville Alumni Association, where she served from 2017 until her transition to the New River Conservancy.

Underwood describes her new job at the New River Conservancy as “serendipitous.” During the interview process, she recalled that she asked to see a copy of the organization’s strategic plan and noticed how her experiences aligned closely with the three pillars the board had agreed on: expanding resources, including land acquisition along the river and fundraising; policy work with all the municipalities up and down the river, as well as government relations; and lastly, working with higher education in the watershed region.

“I think the mission ... the sky’s the limit, there’s so much opportunity,” Underwood said.

She thanked her predecessor, George Santucci, for the stability and success of the New River Conservancy.

“Often when you come into a nonprofit organization after somebody that’s been there for a while, you find it’s either broken or bankrupt, and neither of these exist at the New (River Conservancy),” Underwood added. “It has a solid, strong foundation.”

Santucci was with the organization for 14 years, and Underwood said she feels “like I’m stepping into the shoes of a legend,” and that Santucci has been “gracious to help assimilate me into the culture,” inviting her to meetings before he left and orienting her with the organization.

Underwood sees many future opportunities for the New River Conservancy to engage with issues such as water quality and education, but right now she is hoping to expand the organization’s staff.

“We’re a small staff,” Underwood said. “It would be great if we could have our Virginia and West Virginia staff members full-time, because they’re part-time right now.”

Educational opportunities, given the New River’s proximity to schools like Appalachian State University, are available as well, as Underwood hopes to include students in research on the river and water quality tracking. Additionally, she hopes to encourage education about the positive impacts of environmental protection on businesses.

“I think most people are just accustomed to things being zero sum,” Underwood stated, when activities can be “good for the environment and good for economic development. When you look at the land restoration and research, it shows that when you protect your natural areas, it helps with your economic development. Property values increase, they don’t decrease0 ... there is so much research that says within communities the more green space you have, the less crime you have. If children have a park to go play in safely, you are going to have less juvenile delinquencies.”

Underwood argued that protecting a natural resource like the New River can also have positive impacts on economic development through tourism.

In Ashe County, she said, “When you look at tourism and the jobs that industry has created, from River Girl to Zulus, there is growth. These are small businesses that are able to say ‘let’s put a shop up and rent canoes and hire river guides and hire people to work the store.’ It’s a snowball effect.”

When visitors come from out of town, Underwood explained “They’re going to eat out, they’re going to go shopping on Main Street. It’s just such a gift that snowballs, so by protecting the river, we’re really creating this launchpad of jobs and economic development.”

Underwood noted that there is still a great deal of work ahead in her role and in the future of the Conservancy.

“Any nonprofit executive director would say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t need this nonprofit, that we had this beautiful pristine river that was completely protected?’” Underwood said.

For Underwood, it is a distinct honor to work with the New River Conservancy and sees her role as “this perfect marriage of my personal passion with outdoor recreation and the water of one of America’s finest gems with the New River with nonprofit work.”

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Marisa Mecke is a Report for America corps member for Mountain Times Publications. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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