John Preyer grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina with a zeal for being outdoors. He got hooked on fishing and hunting by his older brother and some of his friends. But the Preyer’s lived in town and didn’t own land.
“I was constantly at the mercy of people letting us ‘trespass’ on their land to go do things,” Preyer quipped. “It instilled in me at an early age an understanding for how precious, and finite, our environment is.”
A few neighbors took an interest in taking him to hunt and fish. One of those was Eddie Bridges, who at the time was a North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commissioner. Bridges was instrumental in many wildlife resource conservation programs in the state, but when Preyer was a kid, he watched as Bridges launched an innovative investment and conservation program which granted lifetime licenses for hunting and inland fishing.
The fees from the program created North Carolina’s Wildlife Endowment Fund, which uses the accrued interest to support programs and projects that benefit recreation, fish and wildlife. To date, the fund has over $136m and has spun off more than $50 million in interest and has had a significant impact on recreation and conservation programs in the state.
Those childhood experiences with Bridges and others left an indelible impression and Preyer says he remembers those days vividly. Not only did it instill a deep respect for the environment, but it inspired him to be innovative in his career making a living restoring the environment.
Preyer went on to graduate from Carolina in 1990 with a degree in political science and worked in political campaigns eventually working as the legislative director for Lauch Faircloth in the U.S. Senate. Preyer worked on a number of environmental issues, ranging from wetland regulation to endangered species.
“In college, I had very little exposure to the environmental sciences,” he said. “And that’s kind of funny and ironic, because I would later end up working in Washington where I had a great deal of environmental issues in my portfolio, but without the underpinnings of having had a lot of formal training in environmental disciplines.”
But Preyer understood the significance of the environment from his childhood.
While working in the Senate, Preyer routinely dealt with regulatory issues and restoration—such a new roads being built in Eastern North Carolina through sensitive watersheds and wetlands. Preyer got Faircloth involved in creating innovative and workable solutions to allow the new roads to be built for the public good, but also benefitting the environment through high quality mitigation and environmental restoration.
“I had a great deal of first-hand experience with how those issues played out with the regulatory agencies like the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and saw at the time—the early to mid 1990s—there’s got to be a better way to get positive environment outcomes and still have some measure of responsible growth and development occur,” Preyer said.
The experience in Washington led him to start his business Restoration Systems in 1998. For the last 22 years, the company has been doing environmental restoration work for entities that needed environmental permitting and compliance for unavoidable impacts to either wetlands, streams or the critical habitat related to endangered species.
In the process of restoring habitats, his company has restored 50 miles of streams rivers (including three dam removals) and planted nearly 2 million trees that are permanently protected under conservation easements.
“It’s often the case that development and development pressures are referred to as an unstoppable force and that regulation is regarded as an immovable object,” Preyer said.
“And that was very apparent to me in some of the environmental policy issues that I saw in Washington. It underscored the need to have new thinking and innovative approaches to solving environmental problems, which may have otherwise have appeared intractable.”
In October 2013, Preyer was invited to join the UNC Institute for the Environment Board of Visitors.
“I thought I might be able to provide a different sort of perspective given that I was an actual practitioner of environmental restoration,” he said.
Over his seven years on the board, Preyer used his perspective as a practitioner to help advise Institute leadership. Preyer’s insight and guidance for the Institute followed the themes of his career—be as nimble and self-sustaining as possible by being innovative and seeking new perspectives to get better outcomes.
“I think that we need to be realistic about the challenges that higher education is facing today in a world of global pandemic,” Preyer said. “The IE needs to continue to be efficient and entrepreneurial in how it does things and how it serves the university. There is a tremendous opportunity for it to lead within the university and Mike and his team are real superstars and will be a huge benefit to it going forward.”
As for his legacy on the board, Preyer says, “I hope my legacy would be one of wanting to serve and then get off of the board and let others serve,” he said. “I’m a big proponent of term limits and I think that change in these sorts of roles is a healthy thing. In the coming years, it is going to be more important than ever before. The strength of IE is its people and its projects.”
As a new leader of the Institute, Director Michael Piehler appreciated Preyer’s willingness to collaborate.
“When I first started at IE, John was among the very first people to reach out to discuss the future of the Institute,” Piehler said. “He has been an amazing resource for me and has pushed the Institute toward excellence throughout his tenure.”
True to his legacy, Preyer stepped off the Institute’s board in June. But his leadership and service to UNC didn’t end there—Preyer was elected to the UNC Board of Trustees July 1, 2019.
As a trustee, Preyer is taking a hard look at the university, acknowledging all of the great things it does, but with the mindset of always exploring innovative and nimble ways to do things.
“He is a tremendous asset to our university,” Piehler said.