For more than a decade, Nancy Fitzer has been the voice of Greenville’s Upstate Forever, one of South Carolina’s most recognized and influential environmental groups. As communications director, she’s taught residents about various threats to the region’s natural resources, completed countless neighborhood projects, and more.
However, Fitzer recently stepped down from her post at the environmental advocacy group to join the Greenville County School District, where she’s now assisting the superintendent and school board.
“It’s hard to leave, because the team at Upstate Forever is a second family, but I’m at that point in my life and career where it’s good to shake things up a bit,” Fitzer says. “I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to impact the community.”
A Harvard University graduate, Fitzer moved to South Carolina in 1993 to work at City Year, a program that focuses on classroom support for impoverished schools in the Columbia area. She relocated to the Upstate in 1996, and earned a graduate degree in city and regional planning from Clemson University.
About a decade later, Fitzer joined the staff at Upstate Forever, where she produced monthly newsletters to educate residents about regional conservation efforts, wrote grant applications for state and federal funding, monitored state legislation pertaining to environmental issues, and completed various community projects.
“Nancy’s role as communications director at Upstate Forever was to help better educate the public about the importance of balancing the region’s growth with the protection of our natural resources to maintain the unique character of the region,” says Andrea Cooper, executive director of Upstate Forever.
“She did this beautifully in writing newsletters, op-eds, and articles for various publications, making presentations, and in digital communications. Nancy is a top-notch person with the utmost integrity,” Cooper says.
In 2013, for example, Fitzer was able to secure a $39,000 grant from the State Farm Youth Advisory Board to improve pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in Nicholtown, the city’s first black community.
Fitzer spent roughly two years teaching elementary and middle school students from Greenville’s Sterling School about safe and unsafe pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, followed by field trips through the neighborhood to measure and catalog safe routes and other areas needing improvement.
She then partnered with the city of Greenville and others to implement various infrastructure improvements throughout Nicholtown, including a protected pedestrian lane on Clark Street, a popular route for students.
Shortly after, Fitzer worked with the Nicholtown Neighborhood Association to install a nature trail from Clark Street to Sliding Rock Creek Park, allowing various science classes from Sterling School to access and monitor the water quality of Sliding Rock Creek, which has experienced alarming levels of bacteria for years.
“Nancy was instrumental in creating a safer Nicholtown,” says Yvonne Reeder, education chair for the Nicholtown Neighborhood Association. “Her project not only created safer routes, but fostered great relationships within our community. And it’s just really refreshing to have someone like her around, someone who is concerned for a neighborhood that’s not her own. She’s a true leader, and we’re grateful.”
Fitzer, who was also a member of Upstate Forever’s statewide steering committee, used her knowledge of urban planning to occasionally lobby, a skill that drew praise from others who worked with her to protect the environment.
Shelly Robbins, energy and state policy manager for Upstate Forever, says her own efforts relied heavily on Fitzer’s ability to clearly communicate proposed pieces of legislation to residents, staff, and state lawmakers.
“I’ve never encountered a better editor in my life,” Robbins says. “We actually worked together on several pieces of legislation through the years, and Nancy was able to encapsulate the most important information and convey it in a way that was easy for people to understand. She was essential to many of our successes.”
Dave Hargett, founder and director of Greenville’s Conestee Foundation, agrees.
In 2000, Hargett hired Fitzer to oversee grant applications and education efforts for his Conestee Foundation, which oversaw the development of the 500-acre Lake Conestee Nature Park in Greenville. She actually managed the foundation’s first education grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That grant enabled the Conestee Foundation to provide nature education field trips to more than 10 high schools throughout Greenville County. The field trips taught students about Lake Conestee’s natural and human history, a curriculum that was developed by several county teachers through the grant.
“Nancy was the spearhead for that entire project and made it a huge outreach opportunity with every high school in the county,” Hargett says. “It was an amazing project that established relationships that we still enjoy through our Lake Conestee Nature Park Nature Education programs to this day.”
“These early accomplishments were all the more remarkable in that we were a new nonprofit conservation organization in the Upstate, needing to develop new relationships and trust from throughout the community. Nancy made that happen,” Hargett says.
Fitzer’s more recent efforts focused on the continuation of the S.C. Conservation Bank, the state’s public-private funding effort to conserve land. It has protected more than 300,000 acres since its start in 2004, including property at Lake Conestee Nature Park and Paris Mountain State Park.
Greenville attorney and S.C. House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister recently introduced a piece of legislation to keep the agency open for another 10 years. The bank, which provides easements to protect land and natural resources, is set to close in 2018 unless lawmakers request an extension before June.
“There is a struggle to maintain the Conservation Bank every year, but that entire conflict illustrates why we need organizations like Upstate Forever. They are the ones who are going to continue fighting for our natural resources,” Fitzer says. “While I’m no longer on the team, I’m going to continue on as a member.”