By Nathan Ham
George Santucci has dedicated much of his adult life to conservation and the environment. From his early days working with the 4-H program in Ashe County through his 15-year tenure as the Director of the New River Conservancy, appreciating the nature that surrounds us all has always been important to George.
Santucci arrived in the High Country 25 years ago and has found a true passion for protecting the New River and being involved with as much environmental conservation as possible.
“I was working for Ashe County Cooperative Extension’s Outdoor Education program, and as part of that, I ran a program called the 4-H Blue Ridge Conservation Corps,” Santucci said. “We did trail building projects with New River State Park, river cleanups and planting trees and shrubs on river banks with New River Conservancy.”
It was during this time that he applied for the New River Conservancy’s Director position when Jeffery Scoot decided to leave. Santucci applied and was hired, giving him an even more hands-on approach to conservation.
“It was a big leap forward into conservation and natural resource protection,” Santucci said. “While at 4-H, I was an adjunct instructor at App State’s Recreation Management department, and before that, I worked with NC Outward Bound. In all these positions, I took groups of people out in the backcountry to camp, hike, climb and paddle. I always thought that it would be great to be a part of protecting these wild places that we use so much. At NRC, I had the opportunity to do that. I also had the opportunity to meet and work with some wonderful people along the way.”
George was part of many different projects and programs during his time as NRC’s director. He helped oversee the restoration of over 60 miles of riverbank along the New River that included planting over 650,000 trees and shrubs. The NRC was also able to add additional property to the New River State Park, which included the popular swimming area that was formerly the Elk Shoals Methodist Camp, and helped organize hundreds of volunteers for many different river cleanup events throughout the years.
Maybe the most well-known event that the New River Conservancy orchestrated during Santucci’s time was the annual New River Expedition. Each year, George and numerous other adventurers would canoe or kayak the entire New River from the starting point in Boone to the confluence of the New River and Gauley River in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. The river bends and flows north for 360 miles through North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
At the end of 2020, an opportunity came along for George to be the Sustainability and Special Projects Manager for the Town of Boone, a position that was brand new to the town.
“Over 15 years as director at NRC, I had many opportunities to work with Boone,” Santucci said. “I got to know many of the staff here. Boone has taken many steps to be a good steward of the New River and is a great partner for NRC. While much of NRC’s work helps mitigate the effects of climate change, I wanted to do more. When Boone created this position, I had to apply for it.”
Santucci was hired in December and started working right away on ways to help Boone become more climate-friendly.
“I’m really enjoying my work here,” Santucci said. “The folks I work with are great and very welcoming. They’ve really helped me with the transition. We’ve got a big task ahead. Boone’s 2030 goal is to have its municipal operations carbon neutral. That will take everyone who works for Boone to embrace big changes. Everyone I’ve talked to is up for the challenge. The primary responsibility of the Sustainability and Special Projects Manager is to help achieve the climate goals set by the town council. Also, working with the Sustainability Committee to achieve these goals and others that are relevant, including local foods, recycling, composting and alternative transportation opportunities.”
Flood mitigation and stormwater management will also be a key part of Santucci’s job. Flooding has become a serious problem in several places in Boone, particularly with tropical systems and heavy rainstorms that pass through the area.
“I’m excited to help Boone eliminate its carbon footprint,” Santucci said. “Climate change is the greatest threat to our planet. The consumption of fossil fuel is the leading contributor to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If each municipality can do its part, we can go a long way to reducing this threat that is causing bigger and more destructive storms.”
Santucci has a few projects in mind for Boone, particularly addressing transportation and electricity-related issues as well as some river restoration work on the Bolick Farm property that the town purchased for its new municipal center.
“Right now, I’m working to get Boone greener sources of electricity, primarily solar,” Santucci said. “I’m working on a long-range plan to transition Boone’s vehicle fleet to low or no emission vehicles. I’m also working on multiple stormwater and river buffer restoration projects and one of these is the reforestation of 30 acres on the Bolick Farm property. “
As of now, Santucci is continuing to serve as the interim director for New River Conservancy as they are still seeking a permanent replacement. According to Summer Rich, the New River Conservancy’s Communications Director, they are hoping to make a decision on the new director soon.
George shared some advice for whoever ends up taking over the position.
“Get out and enjoy the river as often as possible,” he said. “It can be overwhelming when you work so hard to protect it. Getting out helps you reconnect and remember why you’re doing this work.”
Photos courtesy of New River Conservancy.