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