Using Outreach to Catalyze Small Changes in Climate Change Adaptation on Bald Head Island, North Carolina

Created: 7/03/2010 - Updated: 3/02/2020


Bald Head Island is a barrier island located off the coast of North Carolina. Its low lying elevation and shifting sand dunes make it acutely vulnerable to sea level rise and other impacts of climate change such as storm surges and changes in oceanic currents. The Bald Head Island Conservancy has developed a comprehensive public outreach campaign to help educate community members about the potential impacts of climate change to the island and individual choices that can help improve the socioecological system’s resilience. Staff work with community members to identify tangible solutions to future problems. The Conservancy has attained funding to build a research and educational facility and is developing a knowledge sharing network, the Coastal Barrier Island Network, with other barrier islands to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and lessons learned as communities begin to adapt to climate change.


Barrier islands serve an important ecological role by buffering coastal areas from storm surges. Bald Head Island is a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina with a diverse suite of habitat types (dune, estuarine, salt marsh, maritime forest, and beach). Bald Head Island Conservancy works with private landowners, government officials, and industry representatives to conserve and protect small parcels of land across Bald Head Island. On average, land parcels range from 0.25-0.5 acres; in sum, roughly 188 acres are protected.

Land parcels with healthy, intact maritime forests are able to serve as natural barriers to reduce the impacts of climate change and enhance the barrier island’s resilience. The community made land use planning decisions early on such as not cutting down trees and other city ordinances that have increased the resilience of the barrier island to the impacts of climate change.

In 2005, new leadership at the land trust began to incorporate climate change impacts into its long-term conservation strategy, which includes a strong educational component.


Public education has been paramount to the Bald Head Island Conservancy’s strategy for climate change adaptation. As staff began to incorporate climate change into land acquisition strategies and public outreach, they encountered tempered skepticism from some community members. Climate change cannot be felt or witnessed on a day-to-day basis; however, when staff isolated certain impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, and displayed supporting graphics of localized change, community members were more interested in the tangible effects climate change could pose to their island community. Staff at the Bald Head Island Conservancy have since used public lectures, newsletters, summer camps, and its gift shop to conduct public outreach to roughly 17,000 people annually. Their turtle conservation and education program has been essential in their climate change education endeavors. Staff have found that the strong, emotional connection to an iconic species, such as the sea turtle, can cause an individual to change his/her behavior when they learn about the potential detrimental effects climate change could have on the sea turtle population. Simply lecturing about the large scale causes and effects of climate change does not elicit the willpower for many individuals to change their actions, but charismatic megafauna and emotional connections to them can. Public education is a constant ongoing process, involving repetition and multiple iterations, but the Bald Head Island community is generally becoming more aware of the potential impacts of climate change and the individual choices that can be made to reduce them. 

In addition, the Director of Conservation has developed a lecture series to help educate the public and serves in public-private partnership with their local municipality to provide specific and general input on environmental decision making. Currently, the Conservancy is expanding their outreach efforts and collaborating with other barrier island communities to facilitate the Coastal Barrier Island Network, a knowledge sharing group.

Outcomes and Conclusions

The Bald Head Island community prides itself on being independent and making decisions at the community scale. To support climate change adaptation measures, staff at Bald Head Island Conservancy have focused on local initiatives that empower community members to conserve energy and protect land. However, it has been difficult to accurately convey ideas such as “adaptive management” or “scientific uncertainty” to community members; this continues to be a stumbling block to advancing climate change adaptation within the community.

To enhance community “buy in” for actions that reduce their climate change vulnerability, it has been important to celebrate community choices and wins such as turning off the lights at night so the sea turtle hatchlings are not drawn inland. A lot of the foundational work that the Conservancy has done through its public outreach and by building relationships with community members may prove to be fundamental as climate change impacts become increasingly apparent. It is important that there is a certain level of trust between parties before effective, collaborative action can be taken.

The Conservancy is also interested in developing methodologies to give a nominal, monetary value to the ecosystem services healthy barrier islands provide, such as coastal land protection. Currently these services are undervalued, but as barrier islands become compromised due to climate change, the ecosystem services they provide will become more evident as coastlines become more vulnerable. Thus, if community members, industry, and government were to recognize ecosystem services as a “value,” it may be easier to acquire lands that can provide these services.


Information gathered from interviews. Last updated on 9/26/11.


Feifel, K. and Gregg, R. M. (2010). Using Outreach to Catalyze Small Changes in Climate Change Adaptation on Bald Head Island, North Carolina [Case study on a project of the Bald Head Island Conservancy]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: case-studies/using-outreach-catalyze-small-changes-climate-change-adaptation-bald-head-island-north (Last updated September 2011)

Project Contact(s)

The Bald Head Island Conservancy is a non-profit organization founded in 1983 whose mission is to protect, preserve and promote the natural environment of the SmithIslandcomplex.

The Land Trust Alliance promotes voluntary private land conservation to benefit communities and natural systems.  We are the national convener, strategist and representative of more than 1,600 land trusts across America.


Scale of Project
Community / Local
Sector Addressed
Conservation / Restoration
Land Use Planning
Target Climate Changes and Impacts
Culture / communities
Flow patterns
Habitat extent
Infrastructure damage
Sea level rise
Storms or extreme weather events
Climate Type
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy
Capacity Building
Increase / Improve public awareness, education, and outreach efforts
Effort Stage
In progress