Do you consider yourself an environmentalist or an environmental activist? Do you feel frustrated with the way issues dear to you are being handled by local and state decision makers? Instead of sitting on the sidelines and attempting to influence the political process from the outside, you might want to try becoming part of it.
A new campaign by the Western North Carolina Alliance, a regional environmental organization, is asking local conservationists, tree huggers and eco-activists to consider taking the plunge into the political realm.
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.