Dr. Rose Johnson is a native of the North Carolina mountains. She grew up on a dairy farm in Mitchell County — a place she says taught her the value of the outdoors, nature and the cycle of seasons. Her hometown wasn’t without its problems, however. Mitchell County saw the decline of the agricultural industry, which was replaced by a manufacturing sector. In subsequent years, the county lost its manufacturing jobs as more of them were outsourced. Mitchell County has since struggled with its economy — a trend Johnson has noticed in many other places, both in the United States and abroad.
Johnson observed that places like Mitchell County, which have lost their industry but are located in scenic areas, often resort to pushing their natural beauty to boost business.
“Having lived in different places, I began to recognize that the positive way that regions were able to rebuild themselves after agriculture and manufacturing revolutions was to capitalize on their natural resources and having a very aggressive plan protecting and still making them useful for economic development,” said Johnson.
The idea that the areas most successful in promoting their natural resources also vigorously protected them intrigued Johnson.
“As I had more opportunities to travel internationally, I’d always seek out areas that were practicing different types of economic development — like ecotourism and sustainable agriculture — to learn more about it,” Johnson said.
“What I learned over a period of time is that cities around the world, including places in the U.S., have revitalized themselves by saying our trademark is sustainability. I began to understand the importance of being able to do that,” she continued.
Johnson left her post as vice chancellor of the Virginia community college system to accept the position as HCC President in 2006. Upon returning to her home, Johnson realized sustainable development practices would be crucial for the future of the mountain counties.
For Western Carolina, Johnson said, the drawing cards are the beautiful mountains, trees, open spaces, multiple streams and rivers, and overall, the opportunity to have a lifestyle based on being outside. Johnson’s idea to get the college more involved in the region’s sustainability was partly drawn from her realization that these attributes were being slowly eroded because they weren’t being promoted with a sustainable view in mind.
“Coming into a new area as president, you do an environmental scan, talking with faculty, staff and students, researching economic conditions and population trends. I realized that what I felt had to be a topic of social concern for this area is smart growth — how do we as a region protect the beauty that we have and use that as a part of economic and social development?” Johnson said.
After pinpointing what she believes is one of the ways the college might be able to most effectively serve the community, Johnson began sharing articles and information with faculty and staff members “to get them to start thinking about sustainable development.” That led to informal discussions, and eventually, Johnson asked for outside help facilitating dialogue with interested faculty and staff to determine what role the college could play in the field. This spawned into the various initiatives being pursued at the college today (see related article).
Johnson is amazed every day at the growing interest in sustainable practices, and the desire she sees on campus to do more.
“Not that I came in with a blazing passion to champion sustainability. I came with an appreciation of it, but I didn’t come here with an expectation to start an initiative,” she said.