County sees conservation change in Earth Day’s 40-year history

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Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy
Workers with Green Opportunities and the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy clear a trail to the top of Bearwallow Mountain in 2010. MIKE DIRKS/TIMES-NEWS

After its debut in 1970, Earth Day became an event that would spark over the next 45 years an environmental awareness among hundreds of millions of people in over 180 countries.

Amid the movement’s growing popularity was a small part of Western North Carolina with a big future in conservation.

On Jan. 28, 1969, an oil well burst and dumped more than 200,000 gallons of oil over 11 days into the coastal waters along Santa Barbara, Calif. Less than five months later, chemical waste released into Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caused it to catch fire. These events signified to the nation how industrial pollution had been destroying America’s natural resources.

In part response to these catastrophes, Gaylord Nelson, a former U.S. senator from Wisconsin, sought to enforce environmental protection on a national level by increasing public awareness of air and water issues. Taking inspiration from the anti-war fervor, Nelson came up with the idea of Earth Day, held the following year on April 22, 1970.

Approximately 20 million Americans rallied behind the inaugural event, which contributed to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the passage of the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts.

During this time, most public lands in Henderson County were restricted to the northwestern corner inside Pisgah National Forest and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Outside of those were a couple of minor hunting and fishing lands along the Green River that the state leased from Duke Energy, then called Duke Power.

Before long, however, Henderson County’s ecosystems would find their champions in Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, the Environmental and Conservation Organization and Friends of the Falls.

The year 1987 saw the first of the three organizations when Mary Jo Padgett and her former husband, David Malpass, co-founded ECO.

“We started ECO in response to environmental concerns we saw rising in the community,” Padgett said, lsting examples including the county wanting to build an incinerator in Fletcher to dispose of trash and an attempt to build an asphalt plant in Rugby on land that was a recognized wetland.

She also added the NCDOT’s idea of cutting down trees on Four Seasons Boulevard that had been planted as part of Lady Bird Johnson’s national tree program.

“My husband and I were interested in these politics and how the community can be actively involved in environmental concerns in a democratic society,” Padgett said. She and her husband planned a meeting agenda and put a notice in the paper for people to attend at the Henderson County Public Library. That first meeting on September 1987 saw 35 people, many of whom turned into the backbone of what became ECO.

The group grew and so did its aspirations, culminating in a big project to build the 1.5-mile Jackson Park Nature Trail. The trail was completed in 1990, just in time to celebrate ECO’s first Earth Day. ECO joined millions of people in 140 countries celebrating the event’s 20th anniversary and first global recognition.

Around this time of celebration and growing environmental awareness, another conservation effort was taking shape in the county with a small group of women and two pivotal studies. The land-use studies by the League of Women Voters in Henderson County profiled the area’s significant natural regions and which ones were being lost to development.

The studies’ findings resulted in a comprehensive inventory in 1991 documenting the parts of Henderson County in most need of protection and led to the creation of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy on Earth Day 1994. That same year, The Nature Conservancy bought 5,090 acres of the Green River property on behalf of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. The property spanning both Henderson and Polk counties became the Green River Gamelands.

Between 1996 and 1997, the opening of the first 7,600 acres of DuPont State Forest, which lies in both Henderson and Transylvania counties, was a crux moment for the region as a collaborative effort among different groups.

Former ECO President Jeff Jennings spoke in front of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy board. Former CMLC president and now N.C. Rep. Chuck McGrady had contacted Rex Boner at the National Conservation Fund, which then purchased the tract.

In 2000 during Earth Day’s 30th anniversary, EPA administrator Carol Browner gave a speech on threats of a warming world to hundreds of millions of demonstrators, scientists, politicians and citizens across 184 countries.

That same month on April 6, Jennings, who was also a former DuPont Corp. engineer, spoke to a far smaller, but no less essential, audience at a critical meeting in the Henderson County Public Library auditorium. That meeting would set in motion the creation of Friends of the Falls, as well as a six-month fight to keep DuPont State Forest open to the public.

The fight also brought in CMLC and ECO as well as bipartisan support from county and state government officials.

According to Jennings, the win signified both that community members loved their mountains and were willing to say it, and that Raleigh wanted to listen.

“There was an interest in Raleigh, but they needed to hear from us. We made sure they did,” Jennings said. After a six-month battle, Friends of the Falls secured another 2,200 acres and the three remaining waterfalls.

Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy Executive Director Kieran Roe credits a lot of those wins to the public’s growing awareness of environmental protection.

“I think it’s true to say many people now know what voluntary conservation is and what their options are as landowners,” Roe said. The Hendersonville-based nonprofit organization works with landowners to limit the use of their property and later donate it to the state for conservation.

McGrady adds that the shift in public perception has also helped pass county and state laws that at one point would have been stymied.

“I remember how the things we were about were highly controversial. It’s a very different turn in the way environmental issues have played out,” he said.

Despite these wins, Henderson County had fallen into a dichotomy before and especially after the turn of the millennium between increased conservation efforts and a booming building market. Thousands of people flocked to the region that boasted four mild seasons, mountains and a small-town vibe with big-city amenities.

“Western North Carolina just got discovered,” Roe said.

According to the Census Bureau, the county’s population has burgeoned to two-and-a-half times the number it was in 1970. Between 2001 and 2007, about 9,800 new homes had been built, according to a June 2007 Times-News story, and 12,00 subdivision lots had been approved.

In an odd twist of fate, Roe said, the recession in 2008 provided a grace period and helping hand for the conservation effort.

“The recession changed the economy and the nature of our work a lot. Development came to a halt, and a lot of the properties didn’t come to fruition,” Roe said. The organization started getting more calls from people asking if the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy was interested in buying land.

“Our challenge became having more opportunities than we had capacity to deal with,” Roe said.

Property values also dropped, and Roe said land that might have cost $10,000 per acre became $1,000 per acre.

The boon was a double-edged sword, however, as dwindling tax revenue in Raleigh shrunk the state’s budget. According to Roe, conservation funds were some of the hardest hit in the cutbacks.

As the economy recovers, Roe said he hopes funding will bounce back ahead of what he expects will turn into a robust real estate market in the area.

“We can strike a budget to conserve land rather than develop what may not need to be there,” he said.

As Roe guessed, the building market has started picking up again. Land parcels in Henderson County for 2013 numbered at 66,071, and the county approved more subdivisions, according to the Planning Department. However, Roe and McGrady said they also have been busy on the conservation end.

“I’m really excited to hopefully acquire former U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor’s tracts, which will protect both water quantity and quality on the East Fork of French Broad River headwaters,” McGrady said. The Conservation Fund, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, Department of Agriculture and Forest Service have been cooperating in an effort that so far has acquired 4,229 of the 8,000-acre total undeveloped property in Transylvania County.

Roe said that once fully acquired, the property would serve as a key link to 100,000 acres of conservation land spanning the Carolinas.

The Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy has already protected about 28,000 acres in more than 150 projects, including Bearwallow Mountain. Organization members celebrated those victories during its 20th anniversary on Earth Day last year.

As the 45th Earth Day approaches, the different movers and shakers of conservation in the county agreed a lot has changed, but challenges persist.

“You can protect land like DuPont, but you have to keep protecting it. It’s hardly anything I’ve found where you protect it and put it away. There’s always something else,” McGrady said.

Another Friends of the Forest co-founder, Doug Coggins, said the growing population will need to be considered as well.

“Our children need homes, too,” Coggins said.

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