Hand, Heart and Soul: Todd Miller protects the state’s coast

Seawater may not literally be running through his veins, but North Carolina Coastal Federation (NCCF) founder and executive director Todd Miller considers the coast part of his DNA.

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in the community of Ocean, he and his two sisters seized joyful hours swimming, sailing, fishing, shrimping, catching crabs and exploring natural areas of Bogue Banks. Meanwhile, real estate speculators were dreaming up new uses for the land and waterways of Carteret County.

UNC exposed Miller (BA urban studies’78, MA city and regional planning ’80), to environmental management and social entrepreneurship, knowledge that would come in handy for his life’s work of protecting the coast from excessive development.

He created the coastal federation in 1982, after seeing how citizen groups throughout the country were effectively protecting their local environments. Twenty-eight years later, he is still motivated by knowing, “If I fail in my job, I lose what I love.”

Miller’s mission: Involve North Carolinians in coastal stewardship through education, advocacy, and habitat preservation and restoration. If he fails, citizens will lose what they love and need:  the sanctity, natural beauty and productivity of our coast.

“Environmental protection has no shortcuts,” Miller said. “The federation empowers ordinary people working together as a ‘community’ to accomplish extraordinary things.” Under his leadership, the NCCF story is documented in 50 restoration projects encompassing over 40,000 acres of estuaries and more than 8,500 acres of land acquired for preservation.

Miller received the Old North State Award in 2007 and the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Southern Environmental Leadership Award in 2000.

“Todd Miller is the hand, heart and soul of the Carolina coastal conservation movement,” said David R. Godschalk, Stephen Baxter Professor Emeritus in UNC’s department of city and regional planning. “Without Todd to lead the fight, the coast would be left to the tender mercies of speculators, developers and engineers determined to sell it, overbuild it and then ring it with seawalls.”

Colleague Raymond Burby, professor emeritus, added, “Miller’s dedication is legendary in setting a national example of what can be accomplished by grassroots groups that stay true to their missions. NCCF’s multifaceted programs leave no stone unturned to preserve and enhance coastal resources through elementary school lessons, field trips and hands-on experiences.”

On Earth Day 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration honored Miller, the federation and its partners (N.C. Marine Fisheries Division, NC State University, N.C. Sea Grant and UNC-Wilmington) with the Excellence in Restoration Award, praising decades of dedicated work in restoring the state’s degraded coastal habitats. Thanks to a $5 million federal Recovery Act grant, the Oyster Restoration Project, led by local residents in the Pamlico Sound and around Coastal Carolina, rebuilt 50 acres of oyster reefs where each mature oyster can filter pollutants up to 50 gallons a day.

“These accomplishments,” said Miller, “merely skim the surface (no pun intended) of what needs to be done: working with farmers on large-scale hydrologic restoration of farm land, advocating enforcing coastal laws and regulations, and teaching students how to restore marshes.”

“We live where we work,” noted Miller. “The project impacts our economy by employing truckers, quarry workers, barge operators, tugboat captains, scientists and fisheries’ technicians.”

Bland Simpson is author of The Coasts of Carolina: Seaside to Sound Country and UNC’s Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor of English and Creative Writing. He calls Miller, who invited Simpson onto the NCCF board in 2001, “one of the most creative and visionary people working in environmental protection.”

“His leadership in protecting our 300-plus miles of seacoast and 5,000 miles of interior, estuarine shorelines is exemplary and inspirational,” Simpson said. “As North Carolinians, we have a practical and a moral duty to make our many waters living models to the world.”


Editor’s note: This story by JB Shelton appeared in the fall ’10 issue of Carolina Arts & Sciences magazine.