By Bill McLarney • Guest Columnist
We humans are highly skilled and devilishly clever. We can create ball fields, schools, prisons, highways, airports, strip malls, industrial parks, reservoir lakes, landfills, farms of all kinds, Superfund sites, babies and sustainably managed timber lands — the list goes on. One of the few imaginable things we can’t make is what has come to be called wilderness. So just maybe we shouldn’t destroy a whole lot more of it.
Out of the gate, the U.S. Forest Service’s first stab at listing potential wilderness areas in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests met with criticism following its release in late November.
Whether concerned about which areas were on the list, which weren’t or the timing of the release, nearly everybody had something negative to say about the wilderness inventory.
The sicklefin redhorse is a sneaky kind of fish. It wasn’t discovered as a species until 1992, and even with its existence known, the fish is difficult to tag and track, avoiding radio detection at the bottom of deep river pools. But will the bottom-feeding suckerfish also be able to avoid getting listed as a threatened or endangered species?
Mike LaVoie, biologist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is hoping to answer that question with a negative. The sicklefin has been a candidate for listing since the early 2000s — candidate species are those for whom listing is recommended but funds aren’t available to follow through — but it’s likely the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision by the end of 2015. Listing can help vulnerable species make a comeback, but it can also make things more difficult for people who use the river.
The rolling hills of the Cullowhee River Club unfold beneath a heaven of blue sky as the Tuckasegee River rifles by. The property long belonged to the Battle family, it was known as the Battle farm.
That’s before Ken Newell stumbled into God’s backyard.
When the Campus Conservation Nationals Competition wrapped up this spring, Western Carolina University came out near the top of a nationwide field of 109 schools. Schools didn’t receive specific rankings, but WCU made the top 10 with a 13.7 percent reduction in its residential halls’ energy use over the three-week competition period.
“A common adage in the world of energy conservation is: Human energy change is low-hanging fruit, but the fruit grows back, so as we get new students in, we have to continue to improve our programs,” said Lauren Bishop, chief sustainability officer at WCU.
The state fund that helped conserve miles of riverfront, protect thousands of acres of undeveloped mountainsides and build countless sewer and water projects in Western North Carolina is hanging on by a thread.
The recent acquisition of 720 acres of land in the Plott Balsams has helped set the table for the first major park to be created along the Blue Ridge Parkway in six decades.
The land, owned by former Congressman Charles Taylor, was recently taken over by the national group The Conservation Fund. That same group has a two-year option for 2,226 more acres but will need to raise some $5.7 million to make the purchase.
The pieces of property help make up Maggie Valley’s watershed. Neil Carpenter, head of the sanitary district for the town, said the recent purchase was a relief. He’s worked at preserving the land from development for the past eight years.
“Development was a possibility,” Carpenter said. “The economy slowing down bought us some time. If the economy had kept booming, I think it would have sold for development. We’re ecstatic it’s protected now.”
The town pulls its water from Campbell Creek. There are 10,000 users on Maggie Valley’s water system, Carpenter said.
The property is extremely rugged but could still have been developed, Carpenter said. Under Haywood County regulations, one house could have been built per each half acre available.
“That was a big threat,” Carpenter said, adding that development could have required the town to engage in “difficult and costly water treatment” down the road.
“And once that quality of a stream is compromised, you virtually never get back to that original quality,” he added.
The land, which connects to 2,415 acres adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway that have already been purchased, run along the 6,000-foot high crest of the Plott Balsams near Sylva and Waynesville. They lie to the west and east of the 6,200-foot high Waterrock Knob, a major scenic destination on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“The goal is to take all these conserved lands and make a park out of them,” Carpenter said. “And to make a wildlife corridor.”
The towering Plott Balsams are ecologically significant. Elk from Cataloochee have shown up there, plus the land is home to the Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel and populations of native brook trout.
In the 1950s, three other parks were established along the Blue Ridge Parkway: the 3,512-acre Moses Cone Park near Blowing Rock, the 4,264-acre Julian Price Park that is adjacent to the Moses Cone Park, and the 1,141-acre Linville Falls Park.
Each of these parks was created via financial gifts from individual families. And, the mold appears unbroken in this case, too — the property being acquired today along the parkway has, so far, been paid for with money from Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury, who have been important philanthropists in the environmental arena for years. Federal funding is being sought to help pay for the remaining available parcels. Meetings already have taken place with U.S. Sen. Richard Burr about the possibility for federal funding efforts.
Phil Francis, superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said the recent acquisition is key to helping protect the views for visitors.
“I think that’s a very important piece for the protection of our viewsheds,” Francis said, pointing out that this is in line with Haywood County’s proactive stance in this area.
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and Maggie Valley Lodging Association recently earmarked $19,500 to clear a portion of the county’s 73 vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The money was used to hire three workers, or fallers, in February to begin scaling back the overgrown trees.
“This will further help protect these views,” Francis said, adding that the Plott Balsams holds “a rich array of resources.”
Francis said a future park along the Blue Ridge Parkway is not inconceivable and that it is within the agency’s scope to manage such an entity if formed. The 469-mile parkway currently has 15 different recreation areas.
“If all the arrangements can be worked out, we could manage a park,” Francis said. “That’s always a big ‘if’ however.”
Francis, who has been involved in the meetings about securing the remaining tracts of land, said he’s been impressed by the commitment of the parties involved to protect the Plott Balsams.
Just in time for its 30th anniversary, the Western North Carolina Alliance one of the region’s most august environmental organizations is promising to reassert itself as a highly visible and prominent force in communities outside of Asheville.
To help fulfill that promise of renewed commitment the WNC Alliance will re-staff its offices in Franklin and Boone. In recent years the group has relied almost solely on volunteers to serve as its visible presence west and north of its Asheville headquarters. This is not to say WNC Alliance hasn’t been present at all in these communities; just less so than in the group’s glory days in the 1980s and 1990s.
WNC Alliance’s beginnings, in fact, are rooted in Macon County. The environmental group was the brainchild of Esther Cunningham, a Franklin resident who became incensed at the proposition that companies might be allowed to mine the national forests for oil and gas.
“She wrote letters, she organized, she spoke at hearings, she learned Forest Service appeal procedure,” said Bill Crawford of Macon County, who was one of the group’s earliest members.
Out of Cunningham’s efforts the WNC Alliance began in 1982. Crawford said the idea of mining the national forests for oil and gas waned after companies realized that even if there were deposits here it would be too expensive and labor intensive to extract them.
“That issue didn’t really last much more than a year or so,” Crawford said.
The group, however, was born from those efforts. WNC Alliance went on from those beginnings to help defeat a proposed nuclear waste site in Buncombe County in 1984.
It then started a campaign to stop clear cutting in the national forests. That issue caught the hearts and imagination of a large segment of people in the mountains and helped raised the profile of the environmental group.
“People were really passionate about the clear cutting,” said longtime member Cynthia Strain of Highlands, who has been involved with WNC Alliance for 25 years.
Strain, who served for five years on the group’s steering committee, remembers standing in front of the Highlands post office asking people to sign petitions against clear cutting.
“People just couldn’t sign fast enough,” she said, remembering the group collected 16,000 signatures or so regionwide. The group assembled the names onto a scroll of sorts, Strain said, and made a big show of unrolling them out for display.
While WNC Alliance has a long-history as a watchdog over the US. Forest Service — from the early days fighting clear cutting and mining to its current role monitoring logging that still goes on, albeit on a more limited scale, to make sure sensitive areas are protected — the U.S. Forest Service described the WNC Alliance as “among the Forest Service’s many valued partners” in Western North Carolina.
“The U.S. Forest Service has worked closely with the organization for many years and appreciates its work,” Forest Service spokesman Stevin Westcott said. “We congratulate the WNC Alliance on their anniversary, and we look forward to many more years of collaboration.”
Strain said the seemingly lowered visibility of WNC Alliance these days is, in large part, because there simply hasn’t been an issue such as clear cutting that has captured the public’s imagination.
Mapping old growth forests, for instance, while important and interesting “is not the kind of thing that galvanizes a region,” Strain said.
The discovery of previously undocumented stands of old growth forest thanks to the mapping project in turn gave environmental groups ammunition to lobby the forest service to make those places off limits to logging — a protection that otherwise would not have been afforded these last stands of old growth simply because they weren’t on the radar.
Along with the lack of a headline-grabbing issue, WNC Alliance seemed to lose prominence at the same time Western North Carolina gave rise to a growing number of environmental groups. While WNC Alliance remains one of the big player, it is not the only player by any means. These days, there are environmental advocacy groups of every flavor — from air quality to water quality to land conservation to forest protection.
Meanwhile, when the group moved its headquarters to Buncombe County, some of its force in the region seemed to dissipate accordingly.
“There’s been a tension between the large urban area and the outlying communities,” Crawford said. He added, however, that he also believes “Asheville has a large group of well-meaning activists who do a lot of good work.”
Crawford said he’s optimistic that much of the organization’s strength will return with the re-staffing of outlying offices.
That’s what Julie Mayfield, the executive director of WNC Alliance, also believes.
“We have an organization vision for where we want to go,” Mayfield said. “That’s to become a powerful force throughout the region in a way that we are not right now.”
Crawford attributed part of the pullback from the region to economics. And, in fact, when Mayfield took over a few years back the group had only a few months of money left to survive on.
“We went into the year thinking we were not going to make it,” she said.
Under Mayfield and the board’s leadership, however, the group not only survived it thrived: since then, WNC Alliance has doubled to 10 the number of full- and part-time staffers. The group’s operating budget has doubled as well. Mayfield attributed the success to solid planning and to rebuilding credible relationships by “doing what you say you will do.”
The group also has continued its work in the rural areas. WNC Alliance formed chapters in both Haywood and Jackson with the principle missions of encouraging residents pushing for steep slope regulations and development ordinance
Also WNC Alliance still conducts public-land advocacy in the national forests and serve as watchdogs of logging.
Mayfield is a big believer in maintaining a razor-like focus, and WNC Alliance works within three main platforms: forest advocacy, water and land use.
“We got very serious about our objectives,” the lawyer-by-training said.
One point that Mayfield took pains to make: work by the WNC Alliance in the outlying areas has not stopped. It’s just less visible than it once was. The alliance still works with the forest service on timber sales across the region.
“People don’t necessarily see that work,” Mayfield said.
These days, staff members handle most of the timber-sale negotiating and work. And over the years, much of the environmental group’s work has in fact transitioned from volunteers to paid employees.
“We’ve moved from volunteer driven to staff driven,” Mayfield said. “But we do have to have local people on the ground.”
In addition to adding staff to the two field offices, Mayfield said WNC Alliance has added a part-time position in communications and plans to move toward permanent staff for its land-use program.
• 1982: Formed to fight companies wanting to drill for oil and gas on national forest service lands.
• 1984: Helped defeat proposed nuclear waste dump in Buncombe County.
• 1984 or so: Launched campaign to stop clear cutting in the national forests.
• 1989: Helped develop successful rural recycling programs in Macon, Madison, Jackson and Yancey counties.
• 1990: Led a four-year campaign to stop the city of Asheville from clear cutting in the Asheville Watershed. The city later placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.
• 1990: Fought the construction of Interstate 26 through the mountains and helped to create a new state-wide transportation reform group, the North Carolina Alliance for Transportation Reform, that still exists.
• 1994: Claimed victory in its decade-long campaign to stop clear cutting in the national forests when the forest service eliminated clear cutting as a management tool and reduced overall logging levels.
• 1995: Defeated efforts to prospect for copper in the national forests.
• 1996: Worked to expose the devastating impacts of chip mills on forests, leading North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt to initiate a three-year study of the issue.
• 1997: Helped defeat a U.S. Forest Service proposal to build eight miles of roads and sell 480 acres of timber on Bluff Mountain in Madison County.
• 1998: Campaigned to establish the Jocassee Gorges Park in Transylvania County.
• 2001: Launched the first annual Southern Environmental and Energy Expo.
• 2001: Helped form Citizens for the Preservation of Needmore to protect the Needmore Tract in the Little Tennessee River watershed.
• 2001: Organized local citizens to fight construction of the North Shore Road in Swain County into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
• 2002: Led a successful campaign in the North Carolina legislature to pass the Clean Smokestacks Act.
• 2002: Conducted a landmark, systematic survey to discover previously-undocumented old growth on national forest lands to protect the stands from logging.
• 2002: Helped develop Land for Tomorrow, a statewide land conservation funding initiative.
• 2003: Helped establish the Buncombe County land conservation program.
• 2004: Again successfully led citizen opposition to city council’s proposals to log in the Asheville Watershed.
• 2004: Initiated a program to protect native plants from non-native invasive species, with particular attention to the hemlock wooly adelgid.
• 2009: Secured a federal stimulus money contract to put 12 people, including 10 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to work on a five-year project to control invasive plants along nine miles of the Cheoah River.
• 2009: Launched Blue Ridge Blueprints, a community visioning and land planning program.
The Western North Carolina Alliance will hold a spring gathering April 14 to honor and celebrate the group’s founding in Macon County.
A wildflower hike, birding outing and canoe trip on the Little Tennessee River will be held during the day. A celebration from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. will include a barbecue dinner and live music at the Memorial United Methodist Church where the group’s founder, Esther Cunningham, was a member. There will be a presentation by Mars Hill history professor Kathy Newfont, author of Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina. The book features photos and a few chapters on the alliance’s founding and advocacy in its early days in Macon County.
I was encouraged by a recent press release from the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. The release stated, “In a show of force and unity, over 100 North Carolina sporting groups are calling on the General Assembly to restore critical funding for conservation. The groups, ranging from venerable statewide wildlife, turkey, waterfowl, deer, bear hunting organizations to trout, bass and local rod and gun clubs, are seeking investments in land, water and wildlife infrastructure in what amounts to less than 0.5 % of the entire budget.”
These groups representing Trout Unlimited Chapters, Wild Turkey Federation Chapters, Quality Deer Management Associations, NC Ducks Unlimited plus scores of other sportsman/sportswoman organizations across the state are all signers on a recent letter to North Carolina’s General Assembly. Here are some excerpts from that letter:
“We are hundreds of thousands of dedicated sportsmen and women from North Carolina. We span political parties and ideologies. We are bird hunters and waterfowlers, trout and bass anglers, hunters and trappers. What we share is a deep-rooted passion and concern for conservation and our sporting heritage.”
“The country’s original conservationists, hunters and anglers, are still on the forefront of conservation. Our dollars spent on licenses, gear, and associated expenditures such as travel, bait and tackle, meals, and lodging has a tremendous impact on the state’s economy. According to the most recent survey of the USFWS about the economic value of fish and wildlife based recreational activities, we contributed $4.3 billion to the state’s economy while supporting over 46,000 jobs.
“For years, the General Assembly has recognized sportsmen’s economic input and commitment to fish and wildlife resources by fully funding the state’s four conservation trust funds. Now conservation funding has been cut by a disproportionate 90 percent. Fiscal responsibility is important, but it doesn’t mean abandoning successful programs that have protected tens of thousands of acres of game lands, wetlands, fishing habitat and farmland across the state.
“In order to effectively safeguard key components of our economy, the sports and traditions that North Carolinians enjoy, and the health and integrity of some of our most important natural resources, it is essential that you restore a portion of these critical funds for the wild places that sustain our sporting heritage and economic impact.
“This request comes to less than a half percent of the state budget, but the payoff is enormous. For every dollar invested the state receives at least $4 of natural goods and services such as drinking water protection, flood control and cleaner air. When you add in the associated benefits for our $22 billion a year travel and tourism and $32 billion agricultural industries, it is clear that conservation is crucial to our economy. Please support this major economic driver by:
• Restoring funding for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) to $40 million, still well below historic levels.
• Removing the general prohibition on the use of CWMTF funds for land acquisition.
• Maintaining the dedicated revenue source for the Natural Heritage Trust Fund and Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, and oppose any diversion of those funds.
• Funding the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund at $2 million.”
When traditional environmental groups like Audubon NC, Southern Environmental Law Center, Western North Carolina Alliance, NC Sierra Club and others decried the Republican assault on the environment in North Carolina’s General Assembly and penned a letter to Gov. Bev Perdue thanking her for vetoing S781 and S709 (both of which, I believe, have been overturned), it was easy for Republican lawmakers to rant about “tree huggers” and “environmental whackos.”
But when members of the General Assembly look at this wide ranging and broad base of support, marshaled by the NC Wildlife Federation (who, by the way, was also a co-signer on the letter to Perdue) that crosses all party lines and ideologies, perhaps they will see that all North Carolinians treasure North Carolina’s wild places.
Things have gotten slightly darker at Western Carolina University.
The Cullowhee-based college is battling Boone’s Appalachian State University in the “Battle of the Plug.” A play on their football competition, Battle of the Old Mountain Jug, this battle pits the two rivals against each other for the benefit of the environment.
University sustainability officials are encouraging students living in the dorms to unplug and turn-off whatever and whenever possible. Professors are also being asked to teach their classes in the dark. But it is also the little things — like unplugging cell phone chargers when not in use to avoid a so-called “vampire load” — that can add up on a collective scale.
“The ability to beat App is up to everybody,” said Lauren Bishop, energy manager at WCU. “Students seem really excited about it this year, which makes me excited.”
Officials are measuring which campus residence hall saves the greatest percentage of energy, as well as how the overall reduction in energy use compares with participating institutions, including App State. WCU kicked off the three-week long event on Feb. 13.
Although Bishop is an App State grad herself, there’s no love lost when it comes to this energy competition. Despite her App State ties, Bishop assures that she bleeds purple.
“I have more of my energy invested in this school,” she said.
Bishop contacted App State with the idea of holding an energy competition a few years ago, but at the time, they had no way to track their energy savings. That is until the Center for Green Schools, an environmentally conscience nonprofit, created Campus Conservation Nationals, a countrywide electricity and water use reduction competition among colleges and universities. The nonprofit provided an online platform for schools to catalog their conservation efforts.
As of Monday, with 22 days left in the competition, App State was narrowly beating WCU.
If WCU hopes to pull off a win, it will need to work to shift the way students act and show them how much energy is indeed saved when they take a five- instead of 10-minute shower or turn the lights off when they leave a room.
“It is behavior change,” said Caden Painter, an energy management specialist at WCU. “We will continue to host activities that will promote this behavior change.”
Signs are posted around WCU reminding students about the competition, and Bishop has reached out to student groups to help spread the word.
“Peer-to-peer communication is still the most effective way,” she said.
Bishop has been receiving steady requests from resident assistants and student groups to lead sustainability-related events, such as a green energy trivia night. Participation is reaching “critical mass,” she said.
Bishop hopes that they will be able to keep the momentum going even after the competition ends.
All state colleges and universities must lessen their energy consumption 30 percent by 2015 — a feat that WCU has already attained. WCU was the first, and in fact only, university in the state to meet the mandatory energy reduction goal.
“We are the only ones maintaining it,” Bishop said.
But the university isn’t resting on those laurels.
With the installation of a new chancellor, the university has begun work on its new vision — which includes more energy savings.
“Sustainability is a big piece of that,” Bishop said.
The best and easiest way to be sustainable, according to Bishop, is simply monitoring usage levels.
The university spends nearly $1 million on utility bills each year, Bishop said.
WCU has started “aggressively” scheduling classes and events so that buildings not in use can be essentially shut down, she said.
WCU also plans to debut its own program for keeping track of its energy usage at some point in the future. Harrill Hall, which is currently under renovation and will reopen with a gold LEED certification, will feature a screen displaying that residence hall’s usage data, Bishop said.
The school has one other LEED-certified building; its’ Health and Human Sciences building is certified at the silver level. However, sustainability has been a part of WCU’s construction planning for several years.
“We have started to make that more of a priority in the building,” Painter said.
Although they are not certified, the Fine and Performing Arts Center and the Center for Applied Technology building are “pretty energy efficient,” Bishop said.
It is considerably easier to construct more sustainable buildings that use various forms of energy more effective than to condition humans to change their behavior.
“I think it’s more taking the control out of the end user,” Bishop said. “Building better buildings.”