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Justin Timberlake Partners with The Land Trust for Tennessee

As Nashville booms and our suburbs blossom, The Land Trust for Tennessee is seeing more, and larger, swaths of land across the state being put under conservation easement—meaning there might be some left for future generations.

Written By:  Jennifer Justus

Photographers:  Abigail Bobo

On a recent afternoon as daylight began to fade, Trace Ayala, the right-hand man and creative director to Justin Timberlake, perched in a tree-stand waiting quietly for deer. But, when Timberlake, his childhood friend from West Tennessee, called his phone for the third time, he finally gave in and answered.

“I was like, ‘What’s going on, man? I’m in the tree. What do you need?’” Ayala recalls. “He’s like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Call me back later.’”

Timberlake gets it. His grandfather ran champion coon dogs, and he and Ayala hunted together as kids. But, given Ayala’s affinity for the outdoors (and Timberlake’s legitimately important, as it turned out, reason for calling), it’s probably not the first time he’s conducted business from a deer stand or a tractor seat. After living in Los Angeles for 15 years, Ayala was drawn to the rural setting of Leiper’s Fork and put down new roots in the area about three years ago.

He convinced Timberlake to buy property in the area, too.

“I wanted to move back to Tennessee but didn’t want to go back to Memphis,” Ayala says. “And, as soon as I came through this village, I just knew this was where we were gonna live.”

Since Ayala’s arrival—and in an arrangement that links a high-profile newcomer to a local nonprofit’s first key project—Timberlake has recently purchased 126.63 acres of The Land Trust for Tennessee’s first conservation easement from conservation leader Aubrey Preston. It’s more than one of 350 projects and 115,000 acres of private and public land that the nonprofit has helped protect since its beginning in 1999.

The Land Trust has been especially busy lately—and not just with celebrity deals. People from various backgrounds, and for all manner of reasons, have sought its services, which include accepting donations of land, purchasing land, or accepting donations of conservation easements (when landowners choose to place limits on the development of their property while continuing to use it as they would otherwise). The Land Trust aims to balance growth for environmental, aesthetic, and economic reasons while providing communities and landowners with places to enjoy their surroundings.

“Everything starts with land,” president and CEO Liz McLaurin says, talking about the character of a place and how it makes a person feel. “The people with whom we work share that, and can come from any walk of life. They can work in a hardware store, or they can be CEO of an international corporation. But they all come back to that basic value. Most people want to protect a place that means a lot to them. And that includes the state agencies with whom we work.”

Emily Parish, senior conservation director of The Land Trust, adds that no project and landowner situation is the same. The Land Trust simply offers the option, without any pressure, to seek the best solution for all parties.

“We’re meeting people who care a lot about land. They have a land ethic,” she says. “I’m thinking about people who voluntarily are giving up the right to develop their land for the greater good of all of us.”

Going Back to the Land

While The Land Trust has covered a lot of ground in 17 years, it all began in Leiper’s Fork in the late 1990s. The first project came to the group via Aubrey Preston, who now has near-legend status in the city’s musical and preservationist communities, after being the one to save RCA Studio A in 2014.

“We had the idea to take this little town and preserve some of the land around it,” Preston says of Leiper’s Fork a few decades ago. “Some of us got together and bought land and started fixing up the town.

But he had only heard vague mentions of a land trust and wasn’t sure what such a thing could do at the time.

The East Tennessee native, who has a love for the outdoors, sensed that he had an affinity for older things, even as a youngster. That hunch developed more strongly when he began buying real estate and making choices based on how places made him feel. He started following the stories behind certain places and learning about architecture. He learned that he could preserve land and buildings as a way of piecing together a way of life.

By the mid-1990s, he had assembled about 2,100 acres, some businesses, and 13 homes. He connected with Nashville mayor at the time Phil Bredesen, Jeanie Nelson (the would-be first president of The Land Trust for Tennessee), and other thought leaders who came around the idea for The Land Trust. Bredesen had learned about their existence in other places while living part-time in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

“As they explained the concept to us in terms of what we hoped for, it answered questions beyond what our thoughts were,” Preston says. “At least from my side, it was love at first sight.”

He put a conservation easement on his Leiper’s Fork land through The Land Trust, which became their first project. He had initially intended to add a deed restriction to the land—but if something happened to him, there might not be anyone to enforce it. Instead, the conservation easement guarantees that the land can’t be developed.

“That allowed this village to be preserved forever in the ‘fastest growing county in the state’ and ‘highest per capita income’ and all those accolades that are good news-bad news,” he says. “You can have some unintended consequences with quality of life going away if you don’t have a sustainability plan.”

That first easement provided a strong start for The Land Trust; it is now what Preston calls its “furniture showroom.”

“When you think about things you can do for your community—if you want to make a difference—it’s the best thing, by far, that we feel like we’ve ever been a part of as a family,” he says. “I think a lot of people look at it and say, ‘Is that permanent? Can you undo that if you change your mind?’ And it’s like, ‘No.’…We’re pretty aware that we’re just passing through here. And we’re grateful for being able to find such a great place. It’s nice to know that there’s something that’s going to stay the same.”

And the clock can certainly seem stopped—or at least running on slow batteries—in Leiper’s Fork.

four properties in the trust

In addition to the easement in Leiper’s Fork, the following four properties help show the scope of work by The Land Trust for Tennessee.

1 — Glen Leven Farm
Typically The Land Trust does not own land; its bread and butter, instead, are conservation agreements donated by landowners. However, this gem was given to the nonprofit in 2006 as part of the will of Susan M. West, a descendant of Nashville settler Thomas Thompson, who first came to Nashville with James Robertson in the 1770s. The 65-acre working farm, located four miles from downtown, offers an heirloom garden maintained by The Hermitage Hotel, a honeybee sanctuary, an arboretum, hops grown by Jackalope Brewery, cattle, miniature donkeys and educational programs for all ages.

2 — Beasley Wildlife Education Center
The Land Trust served as matchmaker in facilitating this partnership between landowners Tom and Wendy Beasley and the Tennessee Wildlife and Resources Agency. The now public wildlife education center in Hurricane Mills offers hunts for veterans, women, and juvenile groups.

3 — Campbell Urban Garden
The Land Trust isn’t just about large tracts of land. This urban garden sits in the heart of Germantown and takes up less than one acre.

4 — Castle Rock and Denny Cove
These climbing and hiking havens in Southeast Tennessee are now open to the public thanks to collaborations among The Land Trust, Access Fund, Southeastern Climbers Coalition, The Conservation Fund, Harvey Cameron, and The Tennessee River Gorge Trust.

Preserving Land, Preserving Culture

Though the restaurant was technically closed for the afternoon, the Country Boy Restaurant waitresses (who, Preston says, might as well be social workers) were offering slices of pumpkin pie and rounds of coffees. A school bus dropped off a passel of kids to the restaurant, who all the adults seemed to know by name. And, across the street, in front of Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant, a group of younger, musician-looking types gathered with a few old-timers for daily confab.

One of the old-timers, called “Goose,” had introduced Preston and Ayala.

“Goose is always matchmaking,” Preston says. He also calls the man Gooseapedia for his encyclopedic—and mostly true—knowledge of local people, places, and history.

Though he’s more of a one-word brand now, like Wynonna, Goose’s official last name is Davis, and his people settled in this area six generations ago, in the 1800s. It offers an example of the human connection The Land Trust can help foster between original members of a community and newcomers with interest in the land. “It’s a support system that works in rural areas that’s kind of an old way of life that often doesn’t really exist in the suburbs,” Preston says. “You can’t really do that sitting outside Staples.”

While Ayala lives a mile-or-so from Country Boy Restaurant, he has been busy working the land where Timberlake will build his home. He’s working to create hands-on wildlife enhancement and conservation by planting beans for foraging, as well as sunflowers and corn.

With just a hint of a beard and a Tennessee accent, Ayala fits right in to the Country Boy Restaurant, with only his charcoal William Rast t-shirt (from the clothing line he started with Timberlake), as a possible tipoff to his more Hollywood career.

“I just love being out there on the tractor and planting and planning and whatever we’re doing,” he says. He had taken a call that morning from the tractor to join the Stapletons (as in, Chris and Morgane) for impromptu coffee. The meet-up points to the creative spirit places like this can conjure through the combination of calm and serendipity.

“Basically, social capital is when you have a place like this, and everybody meets there, and you have all these happy accidents that happen every day,” Preston says. “Where business gets done, or more community projects happen—just more good happens by showing up here and connecting. Songs get written. Dogs get found. Kids get raised by a village.”

Of course, that sense of community character is only one part of what The Land Trust helps accomplish, but it’s a valuable aspect.

“We’re doing similar work in Lynchburg, the home of Jack Daniel’s,” McLaurin says. “They’re really looking at places like this, trying to keep that character of their community, which is rural character, intact forever.” 

Preserving the Past, Looking into the Future

If Leiper’s Fork is the furniture showroom of The Land Trust for Tennessee, then Glen Leven Farm is its gateway property, especially to Nashville residents. The popularity of Glen Leven Farm for school trips and projects, such as The Hermitage Hotel’s vegetable garden and Jackalope Brewery’s hop patch, has helped raise the profile of The Land Trust and introduce new folks to the nonprofit’s work.

As a rare piece of property gifted to, and now owned by, The Land Trust, it’s another example of the many puzzles the group solves each year by working with landowners and state agencies in various ways. The number of puzzles is increasing, too.

Between April 1, 2015, and October 1, 2015, The Land Trust protected 900 acres. In that same time period this year, they’ve protected 8,000 acres. “We looked at the pipeline of projects and realized it’s not a fluke,” McLaurin says. “This is our new normal.”

Lots of work remains for Tennessee, though. Parish adds that it’s one of the top five states for farmland loss. And, compared to some states in New England, where land trust organizations have existed for 100 years or more, we’re just getting started—sadly, with less conservation funding from the state. But, as the interest in conservation grows, especially as places like Nashville boom, it keeps The Land Trust staff inspired to do their work.

“The people with whom we work see beyond themselves and recognize that they are here for a short time,” McLaurin says. “We’re all just stewards.”

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