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.
North Carolina’s farmland is rapidly disappearing. The state has lost more than a million acres of it since 2007, and only 17 percent of the land in cultivation in 1950 is still farmed. In the mountains, the pressure to develop flat land near water sources accentuates the problem.
“That’s the first place a developer will build,” said John Beckman, pointing at his melon field in bottomland. “I could have subdivided this into one-acre lots and sold them all as waterfront property.”
Beckman and a handful of other property owners along Tilley Creek in Cullowhee are working in conjunction with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee to save their land from development and keep it farmed by using conservation easements and elbow grease. Last Saturday, they opened up their properties to the public to showcase the effort.
Four separate landowners in the Tilley Creek watershed have put more than 200 acres of land into conservation easements and kept close to 20 of those acres bearing food.
“People look to county and state government to conserve land, but there’s another way it can happen,” said Paul Carlson, executive director of LTLT. “There’s starting to be a cumulative conservation story in Tilley Creek.”
Tough row to hoe
Beckman doesn’t have any illusions about why farming has all but disappeared in Western North Carolina.
“Nobody wants to farm. It’s hard work. There’s not hardly any money in it. I still haven’t found anything that makes money,” Beckman said.
A builder and a developer who was raised in upstate New York and has lived in Maine, Colorado, West Virginia and Wyoming, Beckman moved to Jackson County from Raleigh in the mid-1990s to run an organic farm on Betty’s Creek. After selling that property to developers, he intended to take a break from farming, but fate intervened.
The historic Pressley farmstead, a picturesque piece of land that was farmed by Bob Pressley between 1900 and 1960, was in danger of becoming a shooting range. In 2006, Beckman bought the 200-acre property, which is only three miles from the Western Carolina University campus, in a tax foreclosure auction with the intention of preserving it.
“Rather than being smart and taking a break, I got involved in another project right away,” Beckman said.
But Beckman couldn’t afford to pay taxes on the entire property, so he put 135 acres into a conservation easement with LTLT. He has divided the rest into 5 to 10-acre lots centered on a common area that can be farmed. So far he has only sold one of them, to Cindy Anthony, a Pressley descendant who has hopes of restoring the old farmhouse to its original splendor. But Beckman’s broad aim is to create a new model for land conservation and development.
On his own piece of the land, he’s spent the past three years creating an organic farm that produces a wide array of vegetables to sell at farmers markets. The effort to clear his garden plot, which had reverted to a mixed poplar forest, was tremendous.
“The saying is we’re blessed with rock and it’s true,” Beckman said. “You can’t stick a shovel in the ground without hitting rock.”
Beckman hauled out 20 truckloads of rock and used it to build his “Frank Lloyd Lite” house beside the burbling waters of Tilley Creek. But for Beckman, the job of figuring out how to minimize the workload of running a 5-acre farm is part of the challenge. To that end, he was thrilled to welcome interested conservationists for a tour.
“It doesn’t do any good to get other farmers out here,” Beckman said. “That’s the choir. Half of my job is education. Showing people this is possible. Showing people you don’t have to kill yourself.”
Russ Regnery came to the tour having never been to Tilley Creek. Beckman’s farm and the precedent it offers blew the Macon County native away.
“It’s just a fantastic example to set for people,” said Regnery. “You can have a way of life that pays for itself and preserves an agricultural tradition that almost doesn’t exist anymore.”
Beckman estimates that he spends 20 hours per week in his fields during the growing season, but he maintains that people should bite off whatever they feel they can chew.
“What I want to emphasize to people is that farms don’t have to be 100 acres,” Beckman said. “Everybody should have a 10 by 10 plot in their backyard.”
As for the broader picture of farmland conservation, Beckman believes there isn’t a single approach that will do the job. County and state government will have to spend money to preserve what they can, and private landowners will need to work with land conservation groups like LTLT to create a patchwork quilt of farmland in places like Tilley Creek.
“It’s going to take the contributions of a lot of people working a lot of different angles,” Beckman said.
Setting the example
Joan Byrd has lived on Tilley Creek for almost 40 years. She started her life there on a one-acre lot on the ridge above where she lives now. Twenty-six years ago she married her husband, George Rector. Both of them are ceramics instructors at WCU. They purchased land and began farming a pasture alongside Bryson Branch, a picturesque mountain stream off Bo Cove Road.
In order to preserve their peaceful life on the mountain, they continued buying land that was likely to be developed. Five years ago, they put 40 acres into a conservation easement with LTLT.
“We just didn’t want it to be developed,” Byrd said.
While Byrd still focuses her energy on her pottery studio in summer, Rector has embraced the backbreaking work of maintaining a stunning garden of raised beds, grapevines and kiwi pergolas. To look at the perfectly manicured beds is to understand that a garden can be artistic as well as functional, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require hard work.
“There’s a lot of stoop labor involved,” said Rector. “The Italians have a saying that the ground is very low. I remember that a lot at the end of the day.”
While Beckman fights the rocks on his land, Rector has settled into a 30-year war with voles, burrowing rodents that have a taste for vegetables. His potatoes sit in the ground in makeshift containers with hard bottoms and wire mesh sides, and as the season goes forward, he mounds the plants with soil.
The struggle is worth the effort for Rector, who sees producing food as a step towards self-sufficiency that may become critical in the future.
“Cheap food is a luxury right now, but it’s cheap because oil is cheap,” said Rector. “That may not always be the case.”
For Kate Parkerson, outreach coordinator for LTLT, Beckman and Rector are the unsung heroes of the farmland conservation movement because they have succeeded in showing how the land can be saved and used by the people who live on it.
“Some people think that if you put your land in conservation you can’t use it,” Parkerson said. “You can’t use it for development, but you can use it in a way that’s productive and energizing and free and still protects the resource.”
The landowners of Tilley Creek –– Vera and Don Guise own another historic farmstead higher up Tilley Creek with a 48-acre conservation easement, and Kathy Ivey, their neighbor, has 46 acres in conservation –– are preserving a watershed that could easily have been cut up into tiny pieces for second home lots.
“If the people who owned these properties didn’t see the risk and take the steps to get the conservation easements, that might have happened,” Parkerson said.
Through their efforts, they want to show that the value of land is in the way that you use it, not how much you can get for selling it.
LTLT helps to conserve the landscape of the upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee river valleys by protecting private lands from inappropriate development. LTLT does this by working with private landowners to place conservation easements on their property, by accepting gifts of land, and by purchasing at-risk properties. As of September 2009, LTLT had protected 3,564 acres through conservation easements, and another 1,278 acres through acquisition. LTLT also played an important role in the State of North Carolina’s acquisition of the Needmore Tract, a 4,500-acre tract on the banks of the Little Tennessee River. www.ltlt.org.
By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
Sometimes, amid the focus on such divisive issues as growth regulations or steep slope construction, it’s easy to forget that on the most basic level most people in the region share a similar feeling — a love of the mountains. An ambitious new project aims to make people remember what they love most about the land they live on, with the hope that pinpointing these ideas will instigate people to help protect it.
Haywood County commissioners have taken a first step forward — albeit a small one — to protect farmland in the mountains, but they and leaders in other counties need to do more. If they don’t, the region’s agriculture traditions is going to just fade away before our eyes.
Members of a heritage task force in Macon County want town and county leaders to form a commission with regulatory powers to protect historical districts and landmarks.
Botanists are cheering the recent acquisition of a 38-acre tract that’s home to a mountain bog near Cashiers thanks to a grant from the state Natural Heritage Trust Fund.
When Gary Wein came on board as the executive director of the Highlands Cashiers Land Trust a year ago, he had no idea his first major conservation success could be full of so much drama.
As a child growing up in Oklahoma, Tom Belt often heard that there were reasons a group of Cherokee had remained in the East when others were forcibly marched west.
The preservation of the Cowee mound and village site alongside the Little Tennessee River in Macon County is truly significant in regard to this region’s cultural history. The Hall and Porter families are to be commended for making this possible through the agencies of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.
By Michael Beadle
Paul Carlson has plenty of maps to show you.
There are maps with stars. Color-coded maps of riverfront properties. Aerial photography maps. Maps of the past and maps of the future.