After more than two decades as North Carolina Sea Grant’s coastal law, planning and policy specialist Walter Clark has left for greener pastures. Or at least more mountainous ones.

Clark officially retired from his post in January, but continues to apply his knowledge and skills to environmental issues in North Carolina’s mountain communities. He also spends more time at his working blueberry farm, Old Orchard Creek Farm, in Ashe County, which he owns with his longtime partner, Johnny Burleson.

“Walter has been a very important face of Sea Grant throughout the state,” says colleague Joe Kalo, a professor of coastal law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s law school. “I think many people came to know Sea Grant through Walter’s work.”

Courtney Hackney, chair of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission agrees. “I think of Walter as an educator, not just of students but of policy people, and officials and the public.”

Clark says he loved working for Sea Grant, and that he leaves with no regrets. “It was just lime,” he says.

“Walter is the type of person who teaches you to follow your dreams and your passion,” explains Brian Efland, North Carolina Sea Grant’s coastal business specialist. “Walter lives by what he teaches, and he’s just branching out to do what he loves.”


Born and raised in picturesque Mount Airy, of Andy Griffith fame, Clark says the mountains spurred his early passion for the environment.

“I knew I wanted to do something with the environment when I was a teenager — it was either going to be forestry or something that was going to keep me outdoors,” he says.

But as an undergraduate at East Carolina University, Clark’s interests shifted and he became fascinated with history and political science. His studies took him to Rome, Italy, for a year, giving him a “grander world view.”

“I decided I still wanted to do something with the environment,” Clark explains, “but I really wanted to do something that had a bigger picture view of things.”

He set his sights on law school, graduating from Wake Forest University in 1979. His dream was to work for a non-profit environmental advocacy group in Washington D.C. After interviewing with several organizations, he quickly realized the competition was intense.

“It became clear I needed to distinguish myself with more education and experience,” Clark says.

Crestfallen but determined, Clark returned to North Carolina and enrolled in a land-use and planning master’s program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Upon graduation, he learned about an open position as a staff attorney with the N.C. Division of Coastal Management (DCM) from his former professor and mentor, David Brower.

“That’s what really took me to the coast and channeled my interests away from the mountains,” Clark says.

He was hired immediately, and spent two years drafting legislation, overseeing the division’s beach access program and arguing the DCM position on issues at administrative hearings. Although it was interesting work, when he heard about an open position for a legal analyst at North Carolina Sea Grant, he was intrigued.

“Walter was impressive from the word go,” B.J. Copeland, former director of North Carolina Sea Grant, recalls. “My initial impression was that he handled himself well, and was going to do good things.”


Copeland’s impression was prophetic — Clark earned a reputation as an accomplished legal researcher and analyst, as well as a respected educator.

“You always dream about being able to write your own job description,” Clark says. “And that’s what I did. I was given a pretty clean slate with this position, and it became what I could create with minimal supervision.”

But creating his niche wasn’t without growing pains. First, he had to step outside the advocacy role he’d become so used to at DCM.

“We did have to train him a little bit — make him more of a university type than a state government type,” Copeland says.

“B.J. used to tell me: ‘Walter, you’re no longer an advocate — you’re an educator, a researcher. You need to be an advocate for the facts,’ ” Clark agrees.

During his career with Sea Grant, Clark covered a wide range of issues — bycatch, turtle excluder devices, aquaculture, coastal development and real estate, eroding shorelines, waterfront access, multi-slip docking facilities and global warming, just to name a few. His ability to forecast contentious issues, along with his careful research and balanced approach, became legendary among his colleagues.

“Walter would always research up-and-coming issues and have the information ready before you needed it,” says Hackney.

One such example is a research project Clark conducted on water-use planning and zoning for the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program during the early 1990s. The report didn’t receive much attention at the time, according to Clark. But today there is renewed interest, given the influx of people into North Carolina’s river and estuarine areas — the “inner banks” — and the public controversy surrounding working waterfronts and waterfront access.

Clark’s early work on sea level rise is also receiving increased attention these days. Nearly a decade ago, he conducted a study with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify low-lying areas along North Carolina’s coast that are vulnerable to sea level rise. Today, as the state develops its strategy for coping with climate change and sea level rise, Clark’s work is getting more notice. In early 2006, he was appointed to the Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change, where he is assisting the General Assembly to develop policies to address issues associated with a warming world.

But it isn’t just Clark’s research abilities that earn him praise among his colleagues. His ability to stay centered during the most raucous debates has led to his appointment on several prominent committees throughout his career.

“I found Walter to be one of those rare people who could keep a clear head no matter what was going on, and present a balanced view,” Hackney says. “If people had an opposing view, they never felt insulted.”

Most recently, Clark chaired the state’s committee on multi-slip docking facilities, which examined North Carolina’s marina policy and the long-term affects on water quality.

“He was just superb at chairing committee meetings, keeping them on track and organized and facilitating discussion,” says Kalo, who also served on the multi-slip committee. “He will be greatly missed.”

Clark says that one of his secrets to keeping a cool head is remembering that when tensions rise, it’s only because people care about the issue at hand.

“During my career, I’ve learned that when controversial issues surface, people want to do the right thing — and they often rush to do what they think is the right thing,” he says. “But every issue needs to be thought through very carefully and a balanced approach taken.”


A balanced, thoughtful approach was the hallmark of Clark’s many outreach and education efforts with Sea Grant.

The key to successful outreach, he says, is “to take a big issue and dissect it down to smaller components where you can have some influence.”

During his early research on climate change and sea level rise, Clark saw a need to educate people about North Carolina’s eroding shoreline, and the hazards associated with buying coastal real estate. Working with Spencer Rogers, North Carolina Sea Grant’s coastal construction and erosion specialist, Clark developed a brochure that explained the risk and offered insight into smart purchasing practices.

“A brochure seems like such a small thing, but it provided people with some facts for conversation so that they can make an informed decision,” Clarks says.

The publication became so popular that it led to an annual workshop, cosponsored by the N.C. Real Estate Commission.

At first, many realtors were against Clark’s efforts, Copeland recalls. “They thought Walter was scaring away customers. But it turned out the realtors found it useful and started scheduling sessions for themselves!”

The desire to stay on top of research and provide sound outreach was the impetus for one of Clark’s most recent and notable achievements — the N.C. Coastal Resources, Law, Planning and Policy Center (CRLPPC). After working together for years on different projects and committees, Clark and Kalo, of the UNC law school, formed the CRLPPC.

Although still developing, the center already has begun tapping into the talent of up-and-coming law students. Recently, three of the center’s students contributed policy research to the state’s Waterfront Access Study Committee, which has offered recommendations to stem the loss of public access and diversity of the state’s shoreline.


The center is also an extension of one of Clark’s greatest passions — teaching. At Sea Grant, he was responsible for overseeing the North Carolina candidates for the John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, a national, competitive program that brings outstanding graduate students to Washington D.C. for a year to work on national marine policy issues.

“I’m proud to say that North Carolina ranks near the top as far as the number of Knauss Fellows from within a state,” Clark says. Many have moved on to bright careers in federal coastal and ocean policy, he adds.

Clark also taught a course at North Carolina State University each year in coastal and ocean policy. The responsibility wasn’t a requirement of his position. Rather, it was a demand of his conscience.

“Sea Grant’s mission is threefold: research, outreach and education,” he explains. “I felt that I was in a position to do research and outreach in a way that was useful to students.”

Clark team-taught the course for many years with Lundie Spence, former marine education specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant. Spence remembers one student who, on the first day of class, questioned why he needed to know policy when he planned to be a scientist. That same student eventually became a Knauss Fellow.

“I was on the science side, and Walter was on the policy side, and I think it helped really draw students out,” Spence recalls.

“Walter and Lundie’s course was the most popular class on campus,” says Efland, a former student. “Walter was the most influential teacher I had at State,” he adds. “I think he impacted a lot of people’s lives.”

Efland worked in finance and business after graduation, but he would often look back on his conversations with Clark. Eventually, Efland found a way to combine his passion for the coast with his business savvy, and became the first coastal business specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant in 2004.

“One of the frustrating things about policy is that the results aren’t always immediate or very tangible,” Clark says. “But when you’re teaching a group of students and you see their interests, and you feel their involvement, it’s very rewarding.” And, like Efland, many students have told Clark that what he taught them changed their lives.

“That is pretty powerful,” Clark says.


Clark also helped extend the Sea Grant model to other nations during his career. In the 1990s, he was part of an international team brought to the ation of Oman, located on the western edge of Saudi Arabia, to research the nation’s coastal erosion issues. The government of Oman requested a representative from North Carolina because the state regularly deals with coastal erosion without building jetties, seawalls or other “hardening” structures.

Clark approached the project with the same kind of balanced, methodical research he had become known for. To familiarize himself with the nations and its values, he began to study the Koran.

“Every law in Oman, and in a lot of other Muslim countries, is tied back to faith. I examined the environmental stewardship passages in the Koran, and I found them fascinating. I loved every minute of it,” he says.

The research team eventually discovered that the nation’s network of aquifer recharge dams, built to capture freshwater for drinking and irrigation, were preventing sediment from being washed down the rivers during monsoon season. Before the dams were built these sediments naturally “renourished” the nation’s beaches each year.

“Once we knew the reason, we looked at the policy options,” Clark says. “We made recommendations, and they chose to implement a variety of those.”

A decade later, Clark was asked to introduce the Sea Grant model to universities in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. World events and a shortage of funding stalled the effort, but Clark says he hopes to finish the job he started one day.

Back home, Clark’s newest journey returns him to his beloved mountains. Clark’s colleagues, students, and friends would agree that they aren’t “losing” him. Now retired from Sea Grant, Clark splits his time between his homes in Raleigh and Ashe County. And his influence on coastal policy will continue to be felt in communities for years to come.

Clark is a major gain for North Carolina’s mountain communities struggling with issues of development, growth and conservation, according to Spence.

“Good science and good policy and community engagement is important,” she says. “Walter’s expertise will be valuable to anyone doing land-use policy, whether they’re sitting on salt or fresh water.”

This article was published in the Early Summer 2007 issue of Coastwatch.

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