A sweeping status report on natural resources in the mountains is being developed by a regional task force, serving as a tool for decision makers to understand the ecological context of issues they face.
The Mountain Resources Commission plans to issue the WNC Sustainability and Vitality Index by the end of the year.
“It is going to be a report card for Western North Carolina,” Jay Leutze, a board member on the Mountain Resources Commission. “This sustainability and vitality index is giving us that snapshot now of how we are doing.”
Leutze said the index will provide a benchmark that the health of the region’s natural resources can be measured against in the future. It is a massive undertaking, funded with a $140,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service.
Much of the data already exists, whether it is endangered species surveys by the Fish and Wildlife Service or imparied waterways by the N.C. Division of Water Quality. The breadth of ecological data on the region is enormous.
“We live in on one of the most progressive places in the world for understanding its natural resources,” Leutze said.
But it doesn’t reside in one place. The Sustainability Index will change that.
“It is going to be a major, big organic living document,” Leutze said. “We want to be a resource people can access across the mountains where people can get standard data sets.”
The Mountain Resources Commission was formed in 2009 by the N.C. General Assembly and got to work in 2010. The 17-member commission was tasked with studying environmental issues facing Western North Carolina, particularly those brought about by growth and development.
The bill creating the Mountain Resources Commission narrowly made it through the General Assembly that year.
“It was the last bill that passed in that session of the General Assembly,” Leutze said.
It was well into the night on the last day of the lawmakers’ session when it slid through.
“They are bound by law not to go past midnight unless they climb up on a ladder and literally stop the clock. That bill passed with the clock physically stopped, and it was a miracle it got through. Mountain legislators are the key to it passing,” Leutze said.
Joe Sam Queen, a former state senator from Waynesville, was integral in the formation of the Mountain Resources Commission, helping to give birth to the idea and providing the heft to get it passed, Leutze said.
“There were a lot of fears raised over who these people were going to be and are they going to come into our communities and tell use how to be,” Leutze said.
That’s not the case, however.
“We are not regulatory,” Leutze said. The commission may recommend policies and other solutions to safeguard natural resources, but would have to convince state lawmakers or county commissioners to take them up on it.
Leutze spoke about the Mountain Resources Commission during the annual conference of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area held at Lake Junaluska Conference Center this week, bringing together players in the tourism industry from across WNC.
“A very important part of our mountain culture is agricultural and natural heritage,” Angie Chandler, executive director of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, said by way of introduction. “It is vital we sustain that so we can continue to reap the benefits of being able to live and work in Western North Carolina.”
Leutze showed a series of maps depicting development over the past four decades. What was a thumb-print sized patch over Asheville in 1970 had spread like a ink blot over the map by the last slide.
“It is a challenge to us to handle well what is coming our way,” said Leutze, who is also on the board for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, a land conservation trust.
Those from this area on the commission include Tom Massie of Sylva and Bill Gibson of the Southwestern Regional Commission.