Kathy Newfont by stariya


									Kathy Newfont
Forests and Communities in Western North Carolina

      In Western North Carolina, as in much of the Appalachian South, no issue has
historically been more hotly contested than that of public lands--how to designate them,
how to use them. The region's residents have repeatedly fought huge battles, with each
other and with federal, state, and local governments, over which lands should be publicly
owned and how such lands should be managed. This contentious history includes well-
known and well-documented battles such as those surrounding the Tennessee Valley
Authority and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it also includes a host of
less familiar struggles. Among the most important of these is the series of battles over
National Forest usage that swept the region in the past three decades and continues to
trouble it today.
      The Western North Carolina Alliance was born in Macon County in 1982 out of one
of these battles, the fight over proposed oil and gas drilling in the Nantahala and Pisgah
National Forests. It brought together longtime mountain residents with sensitive
newcomers to fight for environmentalist causes that appealed to both. Widely recognized
as one of the most important grassroots environmental groups in the Appalachian
region, WNCA has demonstrated a remarkable ability to bring together unlikely
combinations of people to fight for environmentalist causes. It has an impressive record
of listening and responding to local concerns, and of mobilizing diverse constituencies
around those concerns. Where many environmental organizations in the mountains
represent outside interests and find themselves at odds with area citizens, local energy
and enthusiasm have fuelled the Alliance.
      Since 1982 WNCA has reshaped the political, cultural, and physical terrain of
highlands North Carolina. The organization was instrumental in defeating proposals to
allow exploratory oil and gas drilling in the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, in
forcing the Department of Energy to table plans to site a nuclear waste facility in the
Southern mountains, and in convincing the U.S. Forest Service to amend its fifteen-year
plan for regional forest management, which favored large timber sales and clearcutting.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s the Alliance was one of the key players in debates over
National Forest usage, and thanks in large part to its efforts North Carolina currently
benefits from one of the Forest Service's most environmentally sensitive management
plans. The Appalshop film "Ready for Harvest" featured the organization's 1989 "Cut the
Clearcutting" campaign, which mobilized broad opposition to the practice and collected
over 16,000 individual and 900 business signatures on an anti-clearcutting petition. A
leading scholar of Appalachian activism has hailed the Alliance for its "accomplishments,
staying power, and creative strategies," and WNCA has earned widespread recognition as
one of the most important citizens' groups in the Appalachian region.
      How has this regional citizens' organization earned its reputation and achieved such
remarkable results? The Alliance has assembled its impressive list of accomplishments
largely because it has successfully brought together unlikely combinations of people to
fight for environmentalist causes. WNCA has an extraordinary track record of
mobilizing broad constituencies--many of whom did not match the typical
environmentalist profile" and would not have considered themselves environmentalists--
to become active in battles over land use. Often breaking with mainstream national
environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, the
organization has taken its cues from local citizens. By listening and responding to the
concerns of hunters, housewives, foresters, farmers, and other "unlikely
environmentalists" the Alliance has tapped into reservoirs of "environmentalist
consciousness" largely ignored (or even repressed) by mainstream environmentalist
      Environmentalism in the mountains of the Southeastern United States has often
come from outside the region and faced strong opposition from longtime residents. This
is particularly true of Western North Carolina, which has seen a huge influx of outdoor
recreation enthusiasts and wealthy retirees in the past half-century. These newcomers
have brought with them a "wilderness" brand of environmentalism familiar to middle-
class urban and suburbanites, but foreign and threatening to many longtime residents of
the rural Southern mountains. Yet in recent decades Western North Carolinians, led by
the Western North Carolina Alliance, have fought and won a series of battles over land
use in the region. Though newcomers to the region played important roles, longtime
residents spearheaded many of these struggles and mobilized the broad bases of support
that enabled some eventual victories.

      Why did longtime mountain residents both reject mainstream environmentalism, on
the one hand, and organize and participate in effective environmentalist campaigns, on
the other? Oral histories of participants in Alliance battles help explain this apparent
paradox. My interviews suggest that rural Western North Carolinians responded to the
Alliance's call to environmentalist arms precisely because it was not couched in
conventional environmentalist terms. Most longtime mountain residents rejected
wilderness preservationists' vision of "pristine" landscapes untouched by human hands.
A different land stewardship ethic, one rooted in a very "hands-on" regional land use
tradition, emerges from the oral histories. In this tradition uncultivated areas--forests--
functioned as effective commons. Though the forests were not legally designated as
"commons" (indeed most were privately owned), mountain tradition permitted the public
to harvest both their animal resources and some of their plant resources. "Commons"
forest lands provided a host of products to forest users, including game, fish, berries,
herbs, bark, and honey. Widespread exercise of "commons" rights on public and private
lands persisted into the late twentieth century and in some areas continues today.
      In the twentieth century many rural residents have used National Forest lands as
"commons," and this pattern of use has usually dovetailed well with the U.S. Forest
Service's "multiple use" mandate for forest management. The two western North
Carolina National Forests, the Pisgah and the Nantahala, together include some 900,000
acres. This makes the USFS the largest landholder in the region. In many counties over
a third--and in some counties over half--the land is in National Forests.
      Timber harvesting was not part of the "commons" tradition (though it was a central
component of the USFS "multiple use" mandate), but it did fit mountain residents' view
of the forest as resource provider rather than pristine "wilderness." It was the specific
practice of clearcutting rather than the general practice of harvesting timber that drew
Western North Carolinians' ire in the "Cut the Clearcutting" campaign of 1989. Because

it took entire stands and caused massive soil erosion, clearcutting effectively destroyed
the forest "commons" wherever it was practiced. Anger over clearcutting's destruction of
traditional public resources combined with offense at the jarring aesthetic effect of large
clearcut scars on mountain slopes and fired mountain residents' determination to end
what they saw as pointless and irresponsible forest slaughter. The local residents who
founded WNCA, hatched "Cut the Clearcutting," and mobilized to make the campaign a
success found the "no-use" wilderness ethic of mainstream environmentalists unrealistic
and off-putting. They resented outsider attempts to impose this ethic and its limited-
access policy consequences on their familiar working landscapes. Rejecting wilderness
environmentalism did not mean accepting exploitative land-use practices, however.
Rather, mountain residents argued for a middle way in which selective harvesting of
renewable resources, and the familiarity with local landscapes it enabled--a familiarity of
long use and ongoing relationship--would be honored and embraced by
      I believe that studying past relationships between mountain communities and their
environments can provide important insights into current problems facing Western North
Carolina residents. Hunting offers an illuminating case in point. It has been a major
source of outdoor experience for many mountain men--the vast majority of boys who
have grown up in the region have spent some time out in the woods with hunting parties.
The culture of hunting thrives in the region to this day—there is at least one gun and gear
shop in every mountain town (I did an early Asheville Watershed interview in one of
these); sportsmen's clubs abound (there is one just down the road from my home), and
many mountain families' schedules revolve around hunting season (some of my
interviewees have declined to interview during the season--no spare time!). Hunting is
also a piece of local rural culture that urban and suburban newcomers often condemn as
cruel and uncivilized. To these people, hunters are a rude and uneducated lot, destroyers
of nature who value blood over beauty. Rural people, in their turn, resent what they see
as patronizing and misinformed attitudes on the part of wilderness-loving recent arrivals.
It's unrealistic to argue that renewable resources should not be harvested, they say, and
hypocritical if one does so while sitting in a wooden chair wearing leather shoes and
eating tuna salad.
      References to oldtimer/newcomer tensions are a stock in trade of ordinary mountain
conversations. Disputes between longtime residents and newcomers, often centered on
seemingly trivial issues—including hunting--that are actually symptomatic of larger
divides over questions of land use and definitions of community, provide local mediators
with a significant portion of their business. A look at Alliance history can facilitate
scrutiny of these issues, both by focusing attention on times when commonalities
overrode differences, and by exposing the complexities behind these differences,
complexities that resist easy stereotyping.
      One key goal of this project is to heighten awareness, particularly among
wilderness-brand environmentalists, of the environmentalist history and potential for
environmentalist strength that mountain land-use traditions provide. It is my belief that if
mainstream environmentalism is to shed its elitist biases and become a truly grassroots
movement, it must mobilize strands of environmentalist consciousness that it has
previously ignored or even repressed. My hope is that this project can "Listen for a

Change" in contemporary environmentalists' attitudes toward rural cultures and rural
people. I would like to pursue this goal through a series of profiles of past WNCA
activists in current editions of the Alliance newsletter, "Accents." The WNCA staff is
enthusiastic about this idea. I would also like to do a series of "Highlighting History"
presentation and discussion sessions with local WNCA chapters, modeled on the lines of
the Macon County presentation I did in September 99. Here I would work together with
my interviewees to do a retrospective and analysis of a successful WNCA campaign--
probably "Cut the Clearcutting," and would ask current activists to reflect on any
resonances this history might have for ongoing campaigns. I feel confident of a warm
reception in Macon and Buncombe Counties, where my research thus far has centered.
Madison and Jackson Counties are also likely prospects for such a forum. I think these
sessions could prove helpful to contemporary activists as they hammer out new directions
for the organization. Another possibility would be to do presentations at local libraries
(e.g. Upper Hominy and the National Forests) or hunt clubs (e.g. Hunters and

      This project can make a difference in the Western North Carolina environmentalist
community by highlighting the key roles that longtime residents have played in the
Alliance, and to illuminate some of the sources of their commitment to environmental
projects. I hope that it will underscore for mainstream environmentalists the powerful
love of land and landscape that local citizens often feel, and that environmentalists too
often discount. A second, and related, way this project can "Listen for A Change" will be
to provide examples of local citizens voicing and acting on their concerns, and having a
significant effect on key decisions affecting their communities. One of the challenges
that local environmental leaders repeatedly stress is overcoming citizen self-doubt. Even
where people have grave concerns about threats to their environment, they are often
convinced that they can't make a difference. I hope that these examples will help
budding activists overcome these doubts. Finally, this project can remind both grassroots
citizens and mainstream environmentalists that they can make common cause, and that
they can become a force to be reckoned with when they do.

Public impact:
The Macon County chapter of WNCA and I conducted a public meeting in September 99.
I presented a slide-illustrated talk about my research on WNCA and its participation in
National Forest battles. Longtime WNCA members brought old photos, talked about old
times, discussed my slide presentation, and shared a cake celebrating the Alliance.
Several of my interviewees attended. The Franklin coordinator for the Alliance, Norma
Ivey was very enthusiastic about this meeting and called it "very important" for the
group. She had worried that early members of the Alliance were dying off without
anyone capturing their memories. The Franklin Press covered this event, as did WNCA's
newsletter, Accent. Norma also had the entire event videotaped (and has promised me a
copy), and she and I took lots of pictures.

For me there were four highlights of this meeting. First, it brought together and honored
Alliance founders Esther Cunningham and David Liden, who had not seen each other in
years. It was a treat to hear these two giants of WNC environmentalism reminisce about
early days, and to see them both honored by their organizational "heirs." The chapter
presented each of them (and, to my surprise and delight, me) with a "thank-you" bouquet
of flowers in a handmade pottery vase. It also made a ceremony of their cutting the
anniversary cake celebrating nearly twenty years of Alliance history. I was particularly
pleased to see Esther, whose health is failing, honored in this way, and delighted that her
family--husband, son, and daughter-in-law--were there. And a colleague of mine who
teaches at Warren Wilson came to the meeting and invited David Liden to talk with her
Appalachian Studies class. He readily agreed, and even arranged to bring another key
activist with him. So both Alliance founders got healthy doses of long-overdue

Second, the current executive director of the Alliance, Brownie Newman, a young man
and a relative newcomer to WNCA, attended the session and met Esther and David for
the first time. Brownie's history is one of "mainstream" environmentalist activism, but he
seems very interested in the rural "commons" environmentalism I see Esther and Macon
County as having mobilized. After the meeting Brownie invited me to do a similar
presentation for WNCA's annual organizational meeting. Unfortunately, the meeting will
take place just before my due date and outside my allowed radius of travel. I hope there
will be later opportunities, but in any case I was encouraged by Brownie's interest.

Third, it was exciting to hear feedback from the Macon County chapter on my ideas
about their history. Participants in the session seconded me in some places, challenged
me in others, urged me to conduct more interviews, suggested names, and lingered in the
parking lot after a long meeting offering me their own ideas about interpreting this
material. They renewed my enthusiasm and commitment to this work. One participant
told me that he thought the distinction I was drawing between "mainstream" and
"commons" environmentalism was illuminating and important. Another told me he didn't
think any kind of "environmentalism" fit some early Alliance activists because they were
so turned off by the term. To a person, however, they seemed very glad that I was
interested in this material and eager to help me forward the work.

Fourth, participants in the meeting started thinking in new ways about the clutter in their
basements, attics, and filing cabinets. Norma dug up a wonderful map from one of the
first Alliance battles. Activists had put pins on every spot where oil and gas drilling
threatened Macon County, and the result looks like a pin forest. David Liden ruminated
that he probably had scores of old letters from Esther Cunningham in his basement, and
said he'd look. Another early activist said he also probably had old organization papers,
and a couple remembered that they had photographs that might be useful. I won't be able
to follow up on these leads until the spring, but I hope to unearth new treasures then.

One example of the sort of public impact this work is gradually beginning to have:
WNCA hosted a conference on forest management in early September and one of the
conference speakers publicized the 13 September Macon County event and

enthusiastically plugged my work in her talk. She emphasized how important it is for
mainstream environmentalists to understand alternative models such as the "commons"
model of forest stewardship embraced by many mountain locals.

Another example: I have recently organized a panel for the upcoming Appalachian
Studies Association/Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere conference that I am
excited about and hope will be accepted. The panel brings together an ecologist, a forest
activist, a USFS representative, and me as historian to discuss National Forest/
community relations. I will be drawing on my LFAC work to discuss what I've learned
about the recent history of Western North Carolina forests and communities. My hope is
that the panel will highlight the cultural significance of the National Forests in the region
for a varied audience of humanists, social scientists, and natural scientists. (Humanities-
types have ignored the NFs almost entirely, and science types, who have long recognized
their ecological significance, have largely overlooked the NFs' cultural roles)

One interesting side note: as a result of this work I was nominated for WNCA's highest
award, the Esther C. Cunningham award for outstanding service to community and
environment. I don't expect to receive the award (and don't think I should, actually), but I
consider the nomination a high honor, as well as an indication of how much this project
means to some members of the community.

In terms of future directions, I'll quote from my January project proposal. I would love to
continue this project, which I think is compelling and important, and which is just
beginning to have some of the impact I had hoped. The specific objectives of the project
are 1) to conduct interviews with a wide variety of environmentalists, especially seeking
out the "unlikely environmentalists" who founded and were drawn to the Western North
Carolina Alliance. Insofar as possible I would like to include current Alliance activists in
the interviewing and presentation processes. This would involve training them to collect
oral history interviews and participate in planning and carrying out public presentations.
I could do the early work--including workshops--in the first year, but it would likely take
another year to complete this process. 2) to bring insights from these interviews to as
wide an audience as possible--certainly through the WNCA "Accent" newsletter and
presentation/discussions at WNCA chapter meetings, and also potentially through
mainstream newspaper, public radio, and public libraries. I would also like to explore
other venues, including AM radio such as WWNC, which reaches a wide "unlikely
environmentalist" audience. Again, some of this could be done the first year, but much
would require more time. (I would also love to do a website that invited comment and
feedback, but I don't think this is feasible next year. I see this as a potential addition
late in the project)

I will consider the project a success if 1) WNCA carries interview excerpts in its
newsletter, and especially if the excerpts provoke interest, comment, and discussion. 2)
"Unlikely environmentalist" membership in WNCA chapters increases 3) if current
WNCA members seem to use insights from the past as they formulate current policy and
identify priorities 4) if WNCA members actively participate in the project 5) if local
media carry coverage of the project 6) if I see evidence of increased understanding of

local cultures by recent arrivals, and increased dialogue between longtime residents and
newcomers. 7) If people across NC have opportunities to learn about "alternative
environmentalisms" and WNCA history I see this project as meeting at least six public
needs. First, it will allow North Carolinians to apply lessons from the past to a host of
currently pressing environmental problems. Second, it will provide environmentalist
models to people who care about the land but are repelled by wilderness
environmentalism. Third, it will spotlight sources of environmentalist consciousness
largely overlooked by mainstream environmentalism--hunting, farming, gardening, and
mainstream Protestant Christianity, for instance--and encourage environmentalists to
think creatively about how to mobilize broad coalitions, and to scrutinize their own
positions for cultural bias and misunderstanding. Fourth, it will underscore
environmentalism's potential to unify communities, but will emphasize that this is
possible only if many perspectives are considered. Fifth, it will highlight the assumptions
behind insider/outsider divides in Western North Carolina, and will seek to promote
understanding and mutual respect among the various peoples in a rapidly changing
demography. Sixth, it will allow current and past environmental activists, most of whom
are extraordinarily busy, a rare opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the
work they have done and are doing.

I see this as tying in with other work on transformations of North Carolina's rural
landscapes. Also with work on changing populations and the culture clashes that can
accompany this demographic change.


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