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Help wanted: Engaged citizens with environmental ethos

out frDo 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.


“We want to take a look and see if this is a transition anybody can take — from outside advocate to part of government,” said Julie Mayfield, co-director of the alliance.

Mayfield said the idea came from last November’s elections, the results of which did not bode well for her organization’s environmental agenda on the state level. So instead of furthering the standard lobbying strategy, she thought maybe it would work better if the organization could motivate some local residents to infiltrate the ranks with an environmental agenda. 

“If the current leadership is not representing us well on these issues maybe we have to look at developing new leadership,” she said.

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The crossover could be as ambitious as running for state office, or as simple as volunteering for a county or town committee. County and town planning boards, transportation task forces, greenway advisory councils and land conservation commissions — they can often have a meaningful impact on environmental issues. And many local governments have difficulty filling the slots with warm bodies.

Mayfield said her own experience as chairwoman of the Asheville Transit Commission opened her eyes to the importance of having a seat at the table.

“I’ve spent my whole life outside of government knocking on the door trying to get in,” Mayfield said. “(Now) they have to listen to me.”

The alliance hosted a forum on the subject in Sylva last weekend. Three speakers talked about their journey from average Joe to a representative with a seat at the table. The lineup included a Macon County Planning Board member, a former Jackson County commissioner and a former state senator. For each one, environmentalism played as strong role in their civic involvement.


Susan Ervin, Macon County Planning Board

Ervin has been on the planning board for 14 years, serving as a steadfast voice for sustainable and responsible development voices, “despite certain efforts to get me off,” Ervin quipped.

Ervin is an example of perseverance and how a seemingly innocuous advisory role on a county advisory board can do big things for the environmental cause — even if it doesn’t always seem that way. As one of the more liberal board members she has watched many of the measures she has supported fall by the wayside — among those, the failed attempt at passing steep slope development regulations.

However, just being there as an advocate for environmental issues helps steer the ship in the right direction, Ervin said.

“There’s a real satisfaction in feeling like you are helping to move things forward, however incrementally,” Ervin said. “I know I will be beaten on the majority of issues I favor — but I always go ahead and say it.”

And as a board member in the minority, Ervin said she has learned that listening to opposing view points, knowing when to be quiet and finding common ground are necessary in accomplishing anything.

Over the years, non-environmentalists have been her strongest allies on the board.

“They may not see things exactly like you do,” Ervin said. “But you build a personal relationship with them.”


William Shelton, former Jackson County commission

Shelton ran for county commissioner in 2006 on a platform of land stewardship and environmentalism, and served for four years. 

After returning from college to work on his family’s farm, Shelton became swept up in the local political scene as a response to some of the agricultural erosion issues taking place in the 1980s. He first served on the Soil and Water Conservation District board and then the county planning board before running for commissioner.

He said his step to becoming an elected official seemed a natural one after years as an environmental and agricultural advocate.

 “It got to the point where, look, I’ve been complaining about this stuff for more than 20 years. You’ve got to step up to the plate,” Shelton said. “I don’t feel like a I really chose to run for commissioner as much as it chose me.”

While serving as a commissioner Shelton said it was difficult balancing the management of a farm and raising four kids against county business. But, he urged potential office-seekers not to be deterred by the time commitment because if there is an issue you are passionate about, you will motivate yourself to research it and lobby for it at every turn.

“You can devote as much or little time as you chose — it’s open ended,” Shelton said. “But when it comes to issues you’re passionate about, you do more preparation.”


Tommy Jenkins, former state legislator from Macon County

Jenkins ran for state legislature in 1993 on a platform of three “E’s” — environment, economy and education. He was defeated in his reelection bid two year’s later. In 1997, he was appointed to the state Senate where he served one term.

Jenkins first became involved in politics rising through the Democratic Party’s ranks on the county level. But his switch to elected office was more about timing and luck. He’d been mulling over a political run when one Sunday afternoon he was out mowing the lawn when he got a phone call letting him know that the incumbent had a “faux pas” in Raleigh and his time had come.

He decided to run that day, and began driving around to meet influential members of the surrounding communities starting the next.

“An important part of running for office comes down to timing and luck,” Jenkins said.

Also important: money and a plan. The skills, such as the public speaking and political savvy, will come with practice. But money and support are necessary to get you there in the first place. And for an environmental candidate that can be a problem.

“You have to raise money to get elected,” Jenkins said. “You can be an activist all you want to but when your opponent is on TV 60 times a day and you’re walking around handing out fliers… that’s just how politics work.”

However, once in office, Jenkins said never discount the opposite party, whatever that may be, when it comes to pushing an environmental cause and don’t get impatient.

“Don’t take the attitude that’s it’s got to be accomplished overnight,” he said.

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