Restoring earth before the end of the world

I have some good news. But first the bad news. The world is ending. Evangelist Harold Camping has predicted it. Others point to the Mayan calendar and confirm that our remaining days are few. Meanwhile, a surprising number of people believe that a planet called Nibiru will collide with Earth and do us in.

Most conservationists I encounter may not pay attention to these particular predictors of doom, but they tend to be equally pessimistic about our future. When I traveled to Indiana a few weeks ago to speak at a conference on literature and the environment, I heard countless examples of people wiping out nature, nature killing people, and nature sometimes destroying itself.

Session titles included such uplifting topics as “Dead and Dying Animals in Literature, Film, Art, and Culture,” and “Imagining Environmental Apocalypse.” More than once, professors at the conference lamented that their students find environmental issues extremely depressing. Really? I can’t imagine why.

Sure, we have plenty of reasons to be concerned about the outside world: loss of habitat, polluted waters, global climate change, invasive species, oil spills, funding cuts for conservation programs, species extinctions, and more.

But depressing news is, well, depressing. It repels people — and their donations, too. Very few people want to take on apparently losing causes, and so the challenges continue.

I know we have to be realistic about these conservation issues, but rather than focusing on what’s gone wrong, maybe we should spend more time tallying what’s gone right. Then, the next time we think we’re approaching an environmental Armageddon, we can share these encouraging stories with friends, family, struggling students, discouraged conservation leaders and potential donors — or just read them to ourselves to remember that good things have happened before and can happen again.

Fortunately, we can find plenty of recent conservation successes right here in Western North Carolina. Thanks to various groups and agencies, we again have elk in the Smokies, peregrine falcons in the skies, and river otters and various fish species back in the Pigeon River watershed.

Meanwhile, air quality is improving, and Haywood Waterways and its partners have cleaned up Hyatt Creek enough that it has been removed from the EPA’s list of polluted waters. Also, the 12 land trusts of the Blue Ridge Forever partnership have protected more than 50,000 acres of important farmland, forests, and natural areas in the last five years.

I don’t think we should worry that some favorable results will eliminate humanity’s interest in the environment. Instead, these success stories can inspire all of us to create more good news.

Speaking of which, Harold Camping has updated his timeline for the end of the world — previously scheduled for May 21. We now have until October 21 to create some new conservation successes. Who knows? Maybe we’ll do enough good between now and then to earn the world another short reprieve.

George Ivey is a Haywood County-based consultant and author of the novel Up River. Contact him at www.georgeivey.com.

Support local farmers, local good-deeds conservation group through popular gala

It’s a busy day at the farmers market, and William Shelton is red-faced and sweaty as he hands out boxes of vegetables to his regular weekly customers. One of his four sons — his namesake, Wil — is manning the cash box, adept after three or so summers of making correct change while exchanging pleasantries.

Farming, at least at the Shelton place in Whittier, is a family affair. And keeping that tradition alive and profitable hinges on making personal and meaningful connections with the people who purchase what the farm produces. This is true, not only for the Shelton family, but for all small farmers in Western North Carolina — and one of the best opportunities for farmers to do just that is coming up this month at the third-annual Local Food Gala in Macon County.

The gala is a fundraising event for the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, headquartered in Franklin. Last year, the sold-out gala raised $22,000 for the group, which since 1999 has conserved more than 12,000 acres in its six-county area of Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Jackson, including 1,000 acres on actual working farms.

Farmers such as Shelton donate produce for the event so proceeds can go entirely toward the land trust.

“It’s a good event, with really good food, and it’s mutually beneficial for everyone involved,” Shelton said as he handed a woman a box of vegetables grown on his farm, taking time to tell her that yes, corn was included this time in the selection.

Jill Wiggins, outreach coordinator for the Land Trust, said the money raised through the farm-to-table event goes into the group’s agricultural fund to help preserve farmland.

In addition to showcasing what’s in season, local and fresh (though there is a possibility that locally grown but frozen asparagus also might be included on the menu), the gala features a local wine and beer tasting. Plus a silent auction featuring “experiential packages,” Wiggins said, including a scholarship for John C. Campbell Folkschool in Brasstown.

“Not only do local foods reward our sense of taste, but locally produced food nourishes and strengthens our families and communities, sustains our mountain farming traditions, and protects our natural resources through productive land conservation practices,” Wiggins said, adding, “there’s nothing else like the local food gala. It’s a great feeling to be there.”

That’s true, said Ron Arps, a Jackson County farmer who has been involved with the gala since its inception. This year, because of heavy demand through a new CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) venture, Arps said he and his wife, Cathy might be donating only a few pounds of carrots. If, Arps said, they even have those — it’s been busy this year for the couple.

The Local Food Gala, Arps said, has evolved into an important event in Western North Carolina, and serves as an excellent means of connecting consumers to area farmers. He believes in throwing his support behind it whenever possible.

The night’s menu for the gala is still being decided on, Wiggins said, but it will definitely include a vegetarian and meat options. The meat and fish will both be locally produced, plus there will be sides featuring local vegetables. Dessert most likely will be a blueberry popover, Wiggins said.   

Macon Bank and Duke Energy are sponsors of the event.

 

Want to go?

The Local Food Gala, an annual fundraising event for the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, will be held Saturday, July 30, at the Bloemsma Barn in the Patton Valley area near Franklin.

A limited number of tickets will be sold at the Land Trust’s office in Franklin, or via the group’s website, www.ltlt.org through July 20th. Tickets are $75 each, or $500 for a table of 8.

Landowners protect 13 acres in Haywood

A conservation agreement with landowners has preserved 13 acres in the Bethel community of Haywood County.

The property is largely agricultural land, providing corn, hay and a critical calving unit for a larger cow-calf operation. The land will remain in agricultural production.

The land includes more than 1,000 feet of Garden Creek, which helps provide water for downstream farmers, the towns of Canton and Clyde, Evergreen Paper, trout, one species of rare fish, two species of rare freshwater mussels and hellbender salamanders.

The property was protected through a conservation easement, a voluntary and permanent agreement that limits certain development in exchange for possible federal, state, and local tax benefits, a cash payment, or some combination.  

In this case, the landowners, Charles and Janice Henson, received modest compensation for the conservation agreement. Partners funding the easement, as well as other out-of-pocket expenses such as a property survey, an appraisal of the easement’s value, legal fees, and other closing costs, include: the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District, the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, the Southwestern NC Resource Conservation and Development Council, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Bethel Rural Community Organization, and the Pigeon River Fund, which has provided several grants to help protect water quality in the Upper Pigeon River Valley by protecting rural lands.

This transaction marks the sixth conservation easement completed in the Upper Pigeon River watershed since 2007, a total of more than 230 acres.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 828.712.6474.

The Roosevelt-Ashe Conservation Awards

Through some kind of mix up in the mail, I received a nomination from Wild South’s Roosevelt-Ashe Society for “Outstanding Journalist in Conservation” and an invitation to their 2011 “Green Tie Gala” held last Friday night (March 25) in Asheville.

I knew there was a mix up when I looked at the nominees in my category – Susan Andrew (Mountain Xpress), Pat Byington (Bama Environmental News), Bill Finch (The Nature Conservancy), Silas House and Jason Howard (authors of the book, Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal) and John Wathen (Friends of Hurricane Creek in Alabama, who uses his time and resources to document the effects of BP’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico).

“These are the kinds of people I write about,” I thought. But hey, the invitation promised free, local food and select beer and wine. Besides, I actually own a green tie – one with birds on it, believe it or not.

There was one awkward moment at the ceremony, when I took my hand out of my pocket to congratulate John Wathen, the outstanding journalist award winner, and my four-page impromptu acceptance speech fell on the floor. I quickly put my foot on it and casually commented, “Oh, that’s nothing – a little piece I’m working on for National Geographic Adventure about circumnavigating the globe in my sea kayak, the Mad Bella.”

OK, OK, in the “truth is stranger than fiction” department, I was quite surprised and humbled to find that my colleagues at The Smoky Mountain News had nominated me for the Roosevelt-Ashe journalism award. I knew the bottle of Pyrat rum (office Christmas gift) I dropped off would, one day, pay dividends.

I wasn’t kidding about what I thought my chances of winning were based on the list of nominees. I am a writer/columnist, not an activist, and the Roosevelt-Ashe nominees are, indeed, the people whose stories I tell. Still, it was an honor to be nominated and a pleasure to attend.

Wild South is a regional nonprofit that works to protect the wild things and wild places across the southern landscape. According to Wild South’s website the Roosevelt-Ashe Society is “a select group of individuals and businesses committed to sustaining the protection of the Southeast’s wild places. They uphold the legacies of President Theodore Roosevelt and Mr. W.W. Ashe by making personally significant contributions to support Wild South programs.”

The gala was held at Handmade in America’s Design Lab Space on Lexington Avenue in downtown Asheville and there was an ample supply of promised local food and select adult beverages. There were more than a dozen sponsors for the event, regrettably too many to mention in this short column space but refreshments were wonderful and service was excellent.

Wild South started the award ceremony with two in-house recognitions – Susan Stone of Stone Digital Media and volunteer and Mountain Wildlife Days organizer John Edwards. The rest of the awards, selected by an independent awards committee, were: Alex Varner (Higher Ground Roasters) – Outstanding Business; Jay Leutze (Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy) – Outstanding Volunteer-Advocate; Philip Blumenthal – Outstanding Philanthropist; John Wathen (Friends of Hurricane Creek) – Outstanding Journalist; Hilary Hargrove (Riverdale High School, Tenn.) – Outstanding Educator; Cole Rasenberger (Davidson Elementary) – Outstanding Youth; and Brad Wyche (Upstate Forever) – Outstanding Conservationist.

It was a real treat to be there and see old friends like Kevin Fitzpatrick, whom I knew from Highlands. Kevin is an outstanding photographer and videographer now living in Asheville, where he owns All Species Photography and Sound. Dr. Pete Bates, natural resource professor at WCU and a deserving nominee for outstanding educator, was also there. And it was great to meet new friends like Wild South’s Alabama Program Director, Mark Kolinski.

People out there in the environmental/conservation trenches (including agency personnel like North Carolina Natural Resources Commission, U.S Forest Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife) spend most of their working time being pigeonholed, dissed and/or vilified. Events like the Green Tie Gala, where they can let their hair and shields down and simply enjoy the company of other like-minded individuals, provide much needed R&R for these dedicated souls. A place where they can re-energize and prepare to get back out there and make more of the kinds of stories I write.

I thank my colleagues at Smoky Mountain News for the nomination and I thank Wild South and the Roosevelt-Ashe Society for the wonderful event and their recognition of their foot soldiers.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

More Blue Ridge Parkway viewshed protected

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) recently protected Blackrock Ridge in northern Jackson County, a striking and important component of the Plott Balsam Mountains. The Plott Balsams, which reach 6,000 feet in elevation, tower above Waynesville, Sylva and Cherokee. Blackrock Ridge is a 60-acre parcel just a little south and west of Waterrock Knob, which is located at milepost 451.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Blackrock Ridge lies within the Yellow Face/Blackrock Mountain State Natural Heritage Area and Audubon North Carolina’s Plott Balsams Important Bird Area. The tract ascends Blackrock Mountain where it adjoins The Nature Conservancy’s 1,595-acre Plott Balsam Preserve.

According to Jay Leutze, SAHC trustee, the organization had been negotiating with the landowner when it learned the property was going to be auctioned.

“We had five days to raise donor funds,” Leutze said. “We’re fortunate — we don’t have a lot of bureaucracy — and we can be pretty nimble,” he said. SAHC was nimble enough to be high bidder and purchased the tract for around $110,000.

The tract is located near the newly created Pinnacle Park (Sylva’s old watershed), and trails maintained by natural resources students from Western Carolina University link the Blackrock Tract and Pinnacle Park.

Leutze said SAHC was extremely happy to be able to preserve the Blackrock tract. “It’s in a larger assemblage of private tracts and would have surely been developed,” he said.

 

Attributes

The proximity to thousands of acres of already protected wilderness makes the tract important as a wildlife corridor. Blackrock Ridge attains an elevation of 5,600 feet, making it an ideal habitat for high-elevation species like the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel. According to Leutze, Carolina northern flying squirrels have been documented on The Nature Conservancy’s Plott Balsam Preserve and the protection of this tract will add further protection and preserve more suitable habitat for the endangered flying squirrel.

Protection of the tract also helps preserve the cultural heritage of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who have strong ties to the craggy peaks of the Plott Balsams.

 

A nice fit

Leutze said that SAHC breaks the regional landscape up into “focus areas.”

“This allows us to focus on who would be likely partners and where to find likely donors for particular projects,” he said Blackrock Ridge falls within SAHC’s “Smoky Mountains Focus Area.”

“The Smoky Mountains Focus Area, of course, includes efforts to try and help buffer the Park [Great Smoky Mountains National Park] but it also provides the opportunity to try and protect outstanding high-elevation sites like this one that don’t have a lot of protection,” he said.

And parcels that help protect the integrity of the Blue Ridge Parkway viewshed help protect the goose that lays the golden egg.

“A 2007-2008 study noted that 90 percent of the visitors that come to the Blue Ridge Parkway come for the view,” said Carolyn Ward, the new head of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation (BRPF).

That translates into about $2.3 billion for communities adjacent to the Parkway.

“Those of us who live in the area know the value of protecting our natural resources and anytime we can add land, whether by purchase or by an easement, it helps protect that resource,” said Ward.

Ward said that the one of the BRPF’s projects for 2011 would be to help design guidelines for protecting viewsheds along the scenic byway that celebrated its 75th birthday in 2010.

Ward said the foundation would not only focus on the technical aspects and/or options for protecting tracts of land that would be useful to landowners and organizations and agencies but also work on outreach and education for residents to help them see the incredible value of the resource.

“Protecting our viewsheds is critical,” she said.

 

 

About SAHC

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy — headquartered in Asheville — is one of the oldest land trusts in the country.

SAHC was founded in 1974 and works to conserve the unique plant and animal habitat, clean water, local farmland and scenic beauty of the mountains of North Carolina and east Tennessee for the benefit of present and future generations. SAHC achieves this by forging and maintaining conservation relationships with landowners and public agencies, owning and managing land, and working with communities to accomplish their conservation objectives.

SAHC’s flagship project is protecting the Highlands of Roan in Mitchell and Avery counties North Carolina and in Carter County in Tennessee. But its focus areas include the Smoky Mountains, Newfound and Walnut Mountains, Pisgah Ridge and Balsam Mountains, Black Mountains and the Mountains of East Tennessee.

To learn more about the SAHC visit www.appalachian.org.

Time to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund

By Brent Martin • Guest Columnist

The craziness of this year’s mid-term elections has passed. The campaign advertisements and signs are coming down. The dust is starting to settle. But one thing should remain top of mind for those Senators returning to conclude the 111th Congress — there’s still a lot of work to be done.  

Members of Congress should also take note that even in the midst of a difficult economy and political sea change there continues to be strong and bipartisan voter support for investments in land conservation and parks. On Election Day, voters approved 28 of 35 (80 percent) of state and local measures on the ballot to finance land conservation and parks, including statewide measures in Oregon, Iowa, Maine and Rhode Island. In Arizona, voters overwhelmingly rejected Prop 301 that would have raided voter-approved open space funds and put them to the general budget if approved.

With public support for conservation and recreation in mind, one issue facing senators as they return for the lame duck session on Nov. 15 is the need to finally provide consistency for a program that has done more for local communities and our country than most people realize. Signed into law in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was designed to dedicate a portion of revenues from offshore oil and gas development for land conservation and outdoor recreation throughout the country — a promise that has been chronically unfulfilled.

LWCF was supposed to receive $900 million per year — a drop in the bucket of offshore revenues that typically tally well over $5 billion — but has been shortchanged by Congress nearly every year, with revenues regularly being diverted to other purposes. Full funding has been appropriated only once in the LWCF’s 46-year history and recently declined to a low of $138 million in 2007. This shortfall has resulted in a huge backlog of unmet funding needs for land protection and outdoor recreation for our federal public lands, and state and local parks.

And yet in spite of rarely receiving its due, LWCF has been instrumental in many of the places that are most dear to us as a nation. From local parks and playgrounds, where kids can get outside to play, to greenbelts and recreational trails that connect and enhance local communities, to state parks that provide hiking, biking, and camping and help to sustain wildlife, to federal public lands used for hunting, fishing, paddling, and our most pristine national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas — LWCF has provided a continuum of conservation that has touched us all. Close to home, LWCF has provided over $60 million and protected almost 40,000 acres in North Carolina since its inception in 1964, protecting places like Catawba Falls, the Appalachian Trail, and Lake James.  

Given the tragic oil spill in the Gulf this summer, the vision behind the Land and Water Conservation Fund is even more relevant than ever and now is the time for action. In a national bipartisan poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and FM3 in May, 85 percent of respondents view the LWCF as more important today in light of the oil spill. And now, with the offshore moratorium having been lifted once again and the oil spill still fresh in our minds, it is only right to ensure that some of the revenues from the use of this resource are used to protect our precious land resources.

On July 30, the U.S. House of Representatives took on this challenge by passing the Consolidated Land, Energy and Aquatic Resources (CLEAR) Act of 2010, H.R. 3534, including full, dedicated funding for LWCF with the support of Congressman Heath Shuler (D-NC). In addition, LWCF was a centerpiece of the Administration’s “America’s Great Outdoors” listening sessions throughout the country this summer and is expected to be a priority as that initiative continues to take shape.

But the Senate needs to act in order to capture this opportunity and momentum to finally ensure LWCF receives its due. Please write Senators Burr and Hagan and encourage them to work with Senate leadership to ensure that full and dedicated LWCF funding is included in energy or other relevant legislation and enacted before the end of this Congress.  

(Brent Martin lives in Macon County and works for the Wilderness Society. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

WNC’s largest private tract headed for conservation

The Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy has partnered with The Conservation Fund to purchase 8,000 acres in southern Transylvania County from former congressman Charles Taylor and family.

Keiran Roe, executive director of the CMLC, described the tract as the largest privately owned piece of wilderness in Western North Carolina, and said he hoped for a closing before the end of 2010.

The Conservation Fund will initially hold the title on the property and will remain the owner until the property is paid off. However, according to CMLC’s website, The Conservation Trust cannot make the down payment unless the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission commits to managing the tract and eventually taking title.

Roe said the $33 million asking price was a real deal.

See also: Headwaters tract deal hinges on Wildlife Commission

UPDATE: Wildlife Commission Pledges Support for East Fork Headwaters

“We’ve had two appraisals in the past year and one came in at $55 million and one was $66 million, he said. Mr. Taylor has been extremely cooperative and has worked with us to make this deal happen.” The conservation groups have raised $3 million as a down payment, according to Roe, and Taylor has agreed to finance the rest and has given the groups five years to pay off the remaining $30 million.

Roe said Wildlife Commission was the most logical choice to manage the tract because of its history of multiple use.

“It’s our hope to see the land remain open to the public,” said Roe.

 

Taylor’s perspective

It’s no secret that during his 16 years in Congress, Taylor often found himself at odds with national and local environmental groups. He made the League of Conservation Voters’ infamous “Dirty Dozen” list while recording a lifetime score of 5 percent from the group. But Taylor maintained during his long political career and now that he has always been a conservationist.

“There’s been no change in my philosophy,” Taylor said. The cattle farmer and timber manager said he has always been an advocate of multiple use and sound scientific silviculture. He said that most environmental groups were political in nature and that he fought against the idea of taking personal property rights for what he called environmental worship.

Roe said the fact that the Headwaters tract has the state’s highest water quality rating – Outstanding Resource Waters – points to good stewardship.

“It is rare for a privately owned parcel to have such outstanding water quality. It’s truly a tribute to the management of this tract,” Roe said.

Taylor said the water made the Headwaters tract unique. The East Fork flows into the French Broad River, which serves as a back-up drinking water source for the Asheville Regional Water Authority. The importance of the French Broad as a potable water source will only increase as the population of the region grows.

Taylor also noted the impending reinstatement of the estate tax as pause for concern.

“It can be a real dilemma for people who own large amounts of property,” he said. The former congressman said his three sons — Owen, Bryan and Charles Robert — grew up fishing, hiking and roaming the tract. They, ultimately, had the most to say regarding the sale, according to Taylor.

“We grew up hiking to these magnificent waterfalls and fishing in these beautiful trout streams,” Owen Taylor told the Transylvania Times. “By working with the conservation groups, we hope that our children and future generations will continue to have access to the land while opening it up to wider public enjoyment and protecting its water supplies for long-term community benefit.”

According to Roe, there are other tax incentives that landowners such as Taylor are eligible for when they sell their property to a conservancy. There are conservation tax credits, and often the difference between the sale price ($33 million in this case) and the appraised value is seen as a charitable donation.

 

The property

The southern boundary of the property abuts tens of thousands of acres of publicly owned lands in South Carolin, including an eight-mile common boundary with the Greenville, S.C., watershed. On the North Carolina side, the parcel fits like a jigsaw puzzle between DuPont State Forest and Gorges State Park, creating much needed wildlife corridors.

There are more than 25 waterfalls on the property and more than 50 miles of high quality trout streams that provide habitat for endangered and/or threatened species such as the Appalachian brook trout, green salamander and hellbender (a large aquatic salamander). The tract is also home to the federally endangered rock gnome lichen.

This volume of high quality water is seen as a significant resource for Buncombe and Henderson counties as the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson counties have built a water intake and treatment facility at the confluence of the Mills and French Broad Rivers.

The tract also contains nine miles of the Foothills Trail, a 107-mile trail network primarily in South Carolina that connects Caesar’s Head State Park in South Carolina with the Gorges State Park in North Carolina. The trail is maintained by the Foothills Trail Conference on a year-to-year lease. Public ownership of the Headwaters tract would guarantee that the trail system would remain intact. Public ownership would also guarantee that Sassafras Mountain, the highest peak in South Carolina, would remain intact.

Opening the tract to the public could also provide significant economic benefits to the region. The Wildlife Commission estimates that hatchery supported waters such as those in the East Fork tract contribute as much as $72.7 million annually to the state’s economy. A 2008 Wildlife Commission study estimated that fish and wildlife-related recreation generated $4.3 billion in state income in 2006.

And there may be more treasures to find. The Blue Ridge escarpment is noted for its biodiversity. This transition stage between the piedmont and mountains contains a myriad of microhabitats including spray cliffs and Southern Appalachian bogs.

Conservation makes strides in the mountains

Blue Ridge Forever, a coalition of nine land trusts in the mountains, will exceed its five-year goal of protecting 50,000 acres in Western North Carolina. The land trusts expect to surpass the target by as much as 8,000 acres by year’s end.

“The land trusts had to overcome untold obstacles to reach this goal, working quickly to protect the places we all love in Western North Carolina before they were lost to development,” said Phyllis Stiles, campaign director for Blue Ridge Forever. “But, whenever the goal seemed too lofty, our treasured mountains, forests, farmland and streams inspired us to press on.”

When the campaign was launched, the national recession wasn’t on the horizon.

“That was unexpected and made it a lot harder. A lot of money that would have been used for land conservation disappeared,” said Gary Wein, director of the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust.

Meanwhile, when real estate developments faltered, landowners and developers facing foreclosures offered up their property for conservation at reduced prices. Opportunity was abundant, but the funding wasn’t there to take advantage of it, Wein said.

“Money has been hard to come by,” he said.

Plus, what grants and donations were available were earmarked for projects themselves, leaving little for daily operations and overhead of running the land trusts.

The land trusts collectively saved 350 tracts of land from development over the past five years, sometimes by outright purchase of the tracts and other times by securing a voluntary conservation agreement from the landowner.

Some of the saved tracts are wild, while others are farmlands, which will continue being farmed without threat of development.

“Once a farm becomes a housing development it will likely never again be worked. The protection of good agricultural lands is vital to the future of farming in our mountains and in our state,” said Bill Yarborough, special assistant to N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture.

While the campaign’s success is a critical milestone, Stiles said the work is far from over. Many important places in the Blue Ridge Mountains are still at risk of development.

Public funding from state and federal sources came to $110 million, and private donations totaled $32.5 million. Landowners contributed $196 million by donating property outright or at a reduced market value.

“Without all those land owners donating conservation easements, we never would have done it. It takes a village to conserve land,” Wein said.

America’s Great Outdoors Initiative

Not even the looming shadow of the nation’s worst environmental disaster in two decades could spoil the mood at the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative listening session in Asheville last week.

Recreation, conservation and preservation-minded environmentalists from all over Western North Carolina streamed into the Ferguson Auditorium at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College for a chance to influence federal policy.

“They’re calling it a listening session,” said Abe Nail, 56, of Globe. “I can’t imagine the Bush administration doing anything like that.”

Judi Parker, 63, also of Globe –– which is tucked into the middle of the Pisgah National Forest just south of Blowing Rock –– marveled at the crowd of people swarming around her.

“I’m just glad so many people came,” she said.

Nail and Parker were two of more than 500 people who came to participate in a project inaugurated by President Barack Obama in April. Administration officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Interior –– all of which have a stake in overseeing America’s public lands –– have joined together for a road show to listen to the people their policies impact.

Paul Carlson, executive director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee based in Franklin, said the administration’s willingness to send senior officials to the listening sessions showed it was serious about supporting locally-based conservation efforts.

“Those are pretty senior guys and for them to be out there taking that kind of time to listen to us is pretty impressive,” Carlson said.

The group has toured a dozen cities already to meet with stakeholder groups and talk about how the federal government can do a better job expanding access to outdoor recreation and land conservation in everything from city parks to national forests.

Will Shafroth, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior, is one of a handful of officials who have been to every city so far. Shafroth said the trip has given him a lift during a trying period.

“It’s invigorating because with the dark cloud of the oil spill in the Gulf, which has been a real drag on our sense of what’s happening, you come into a place like this and it’s just full of energy,” Shafroth said.

The strain of the past months showed on Shafroth’s face, and during his opening remarks he managed to forget where he was, thanking the people of “Asheville, Tennessee” for the turnout.

Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy handled the slip graciously and led the audience –– which was made up of a wide range of characters from AmeriCorps volunteers to non-profit executive directors to local politicians –– in a rousing call and response that confirmed the real venue for the event.

The value of the listening session as a policy tool may not yet be determined, but its worth as a morale building exercise was evident from the start.

Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, invoked the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt in his remarks and set the tone for the dialogue later in the day.

“We know now that the solutions are not going to come from Washington, if they ever did,” Strickland said.

The room buzzed as Julie Judkins of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a facilitator in the morning’s youth event, offered some feedback direct from the young people to the big bosses.

“Even though we love Smoky [the Bear], maybe it’s time to get him on the iPhone,” Judkins said.

John Jarvis, head of the National Park Service, offered a succinct summation of the aim of the event in his address.

“We need your ideas so we can spread them around to other parts of the country,” Jarvis said.

The listening sessions have been organized to inform a report that will be on President Barack Obama’s desk by November 15. After the hour-long introductory session that included an eight-minute inspirational video invoking the nation’s relationship with its public lands, the participants headed to breakout sessions in classroom settings to discuss their own experiences.

The sessions were organized to record what strategies were working, what challenges organizations were facing, how the federal government could better facilitate change, and what existing tools could be used to create improvements in the system.

In a breakout session focused on outdoor recreation, participants affiliated with trail clubs, mountain biking groups, paddling groups, tourism offices and scout troops piled into a room.

Mark Singleton, executive director of Sylva-based American Whitewater, participated in the president’s kickoff conference in Washington, D.C., back in April. Two months later he was telling the facilitator that the government had to work to create better and more accessible options for recreation on public land so the younger generation would grow up with a conservation ethic.

“It’s hard to protect something if you don’t love it,” Singleton said. “There can’t be a disconnect with the younger generation.”

Eric Woolridge, the Wautauga County Tourism and Development Authority’s outdoor recreation planner, hailed the new cooperative model in Boone that uses a local tax on overnight lodging to fund outdoor recreation infrastructure projects.

Woolridge oversees an outdoor recreation infrastructure budget of $250,000 derived from proceeds of a 6 percent occupancy tax.

“The key is that we have a revenue stream, and it always stays there,” Woolridge said.

There were specific asks for cooperation from the Feds, too. A woman from North Georgia wanted to know how to get memorandums of understanding with various agencies to help her youth orienteering program.

Don Walton, a board member with the Friends of the Mountain To Sea Trail, asked that the U.S. Park Service to consider allowing more camping opportunities on land owned by the Blue Ridge Parkway.

While each set of stakeholders had their own pet issues, nearly everyone was urging the Feds to ramp up their contribution to the Land And Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenues from off-shore oil leases to benefit outdoor recreation projects across the country.

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar authorized $38 million for state projects through the fund this year, but the administration has announced its aim to authorize the full funding level of $900 million for the LWCF by 2014.

Woolridge, Singleton and many other outdoor recreation stakeholders also waned to emphasize that their work isn’t just about playing, it’s about economic development.

“Outdoor recreation and conservation is a legitimate development strategy,” Woolridge said. “In fact, it may be the only development strategy for rural communities.”

For Shafroth, who ran a non-profit in Colorado before taking his job at the Department of Interior, the economic challenges of the moment are an ever-present reality.

“With the shortfalls with resources we have right now and the size of people’s goals… in some cases, there’s a pretty big gulf right now,” Shafroth said.

But more than just dollars and cents, the listening tour is an organizing effort, a way to get conservation-minded people in front of their government to start a long-overdue conversation.

Abe Nail said his attendance at the event wasn’t about money.

“You can’t buy conservation. Conservation is passion driven,” Nail said.

To submit comments online to the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, visit http://ideas.usda.gov/ago/ideas.nsf or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Feds listening to our outdoors agenda

By Ken Murphy

Western North Carolina is a special place, a region with awe-inspiring scenic vistas, waterways and forested watersheds that are home to unmatched biodiversity, and rural landscapes and cultural sites that remind us of our heritage on a daily basis. However, the demands of the modern economy have led to the loss of many of our working farms and forests, the disappearance of wild areas, and threats to clean air and water.

Fortunately, our region is blessed with many community-based environmental and conservation organizations, each seeking to protect our land, water, and wildlife. These local organizations (including local offices of national organizations) are uniquely positioned to “make things happen” through decisions of local stakeholders and elected officials so that effective and innovative conservation efforts can succeed.

Because tax and spending policies are increasingly set on the federal level, the framework in which our local organizations act is largely determined on the national stage. Our local organizations — no matter how hard-working and resourceful — cannot continue to be successful if they work in an atmosphere of indifference to the challenges they face. Since federal policymakers act in a remote urban setting, and since future generations cannot vote, the risk of inadequate support for local conservation objectives is high. Thankfully, somebody is now listening.

Last April 16, President Obama established the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, led by the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, the Administrator of the EPA, and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. The Initiative recognized that our country is in many ways losing touch with — and in many cases losing — the places and traditions that have helped make America special. Importantly, the President ordered that the Initiative conduct listening and learning sessions throughout the country, sessions in which the full range of interested groups could speak to the problems and solutions involved with protecting special places. A listening session is scheduled for Asheville on July 15 (see www.doi.gov/americasgreatoutdoors for details).

Given that somebody is listening, we have not only an opportunity, but in some sense a duty, to speak out in order to enhance means of protecting our landscape and sharing our natural treasures with those who are losing touch with them. By speaking of our accomplishments, we can encourage others to replicate and build upon our success. By speaking of our challenges, we can encourage decisions that help lower barriers rather than raise them.

For example, the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee (LTLT), which primarily operates west of the Balsam Mountains, plans to speak of the success we have had in working with local landowners and in combining private contributions and government grants in order to acquire and protect significant portions of Cowee, the richest and most intact cultural landscape in the region we cover. Cowee was the principal commercial and diplomatic center of the Mountain Cherokee in the 18th century. William Bartram, who traveled through the area in 1775, described the setting as “one of the most charming natural mountainous landscapes perhaps any where to be seen.” The, LTLT has made great strides in securing this landscape, and in 2007 succeeded in conserving the Cowee Mound itself in partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and the state of North Carolina.

LTLT has plans for further work in the region, and these plans are not without challenges. For example, through a generous private donation and financing through a local bank, LTLT was recently able to purchase a 108-acre forested tract that includes Hall Mountain, which overlooks the Little Tennessee River and the Cowee Mound. As a result, LTLT has expanded to over 380 acres the network of conserved land surrounding the ancient mound site. LTLT is working with the EBCI and others to seek permanent protection of the Hall Mountain tract under the USDA-Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program.

Establishing the Hall Mountain tract as a community forest would provide tribal members and the surrounding community an opportunity for vocational education in forestry as well as an active demonstration site for quality forest stewardship. The tract could also be managed to provide artisan resources, such as white oak, to the Cherokee basket weavers.

While LTLT will speak to its successes and challenges in land conservation, the listening session in Asheville on July 15 is a rare opportunity to be heard on a number of outdoor-oriented issues. I hope to see you there.

Ken Murphy is vice chair of The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee

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