Asheville history columnist Rob Neufeld on the work of the WNC Alliance to change U.S. Forest Service policy.
Written by Rob Neufeld Visiting Our Past Asheville Citizen Times.
Twenty-three years ago, April 15, was “Cut the Clearcutting!” day in Asheville. The demonstration and concert highlighted a long campaign to redirect U.S. Forest Service policy. Western North Carolina Alliance the movement’s organizer, just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Kathryn Newfont, associate professor of history at Mars Hill College, has just published a book, “Blue Ridge Commons,” that tells the story of Cut the Clearcutting! and other successful efforts to wed environmentalism with the economic benefit of shared land. WNCA, Newfont relates, “decoupled the issue of forest protection from the question of wilderness preservation and hitched it instead to widely shared concerns about the wooded mountain commons.” The shot that lit the locals’ fire was the Forest Service’s 1984 50-year draft plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala Forests — a death sentence for one-third of our woodland. What got local farmers, hunters, loggers and merchants involved in the opposition — aside from the shadow of past federal land grabs — was that they knew that the plan was bad. At the first public hearing, in Franklin, 1985, McKinley Jenkins, hunter and retired logger from Graham County, testified, “I’ve worked in the woods almost all my life and one of the worst things I’ve ever seen is this clearcutting. If they don’t stop it there won’t be anything in the woods over four inches round.” He debunked Forest Service forestry science. “I know north facing coves,” he said, “that will never come back. And I can take you there.” At a subsequent hearing in Madison County, Haze Landers refuted the notion that clearcutting was good for sportsmen. Grouse and deer like clear-cuts, but bears, raccoons, squirrels and turkeys can’t abide them. And the briary regrowth forbids men. “If you go out there in that place they cut,” Landers averred, “you can’t go through there. You’d just as well come back.” Local experts proposed selective cutting for best long-range effects, but testimonies and petitions only nudged the Forest Service to reduce the time period of its cutting bonanza from 50 years to 15. WNCA hired a law firm, engaged other parties, and composed and filed an appeal. Walton Smith, a retired U.S. Forest Service forester who spent years trying to reclaim forests obliterated in the post-Weeks Act boom, took a team to two tracts, one clear-cut 25 years before, the other, 15. His survey showed that clear-cut areas grow back with less diversity and lower timber quality. WNCA’s appeal was denied. Its task force regrouped and, Mary Kelly, an ecologist from Madison County, recalls, everyone admitted, “We’re not getting anywhere.” A clearcutting plan by another agency, the Asheville-Buncombe Water Authority, mobilized citizens in the North Fork, Swannanoa area; and Monroe Gilmour, a Black Mountain resident and campaign organizer, joined the WNCA effort to raise public awareness. The movement got its name, “Cut the Clearcutting!” and staged a number of attention-getting, message-delivering, and community-involving happenings. In 1989, Forest Service chief Dale Robertson revised the agency’s plan so it embraced managed forestry and commons usage. “He cited below-cost timber sales as a major problem, and he also ruled that planners had not adequately considered ‘the large opposition to clearcutting,’” Newfont notes. The Nantahala and Pisgah Forest part of the plan, finalized five years later, “stood out as a model,” Newfont writes, “even among the new wave of more ecologically grounded plans”— a result of a wedding of a “commons-friendly brand of professional forestry to a grassroots campaign tapping powerful regional veins of commons protectionism.”