Commentary: N.C. Environmental Groups Merge to Protect Southern Appalachians

Mountain True (formerly the Western North Carolina Alliance) and the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition are joining forces. In their combined 60 years of environmental work, the two groups have used different styles in pursuit of a common purpose.

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Two western North Carolina environmental groups that are merging this month exemplify different styles of building public support to protect natural resources in rural areas.

One of the groups is Mountain True, formed in 1984 as the Western North Carolina Alliance and renamed in 2015. Mountain True is headquartered in Asheville and staff-led since 2008 by Julie Mayfield and Bob Wagner.

The other group is the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition (HRWC), established in 1995. The group has an office in Murphy and has been staff-led since 2003 by Callie Moore.

The merger will give Mountain True a presence in the westernmost counties of North Carolina and give HRWC access to more funding sources and the opportunity to grow, according to Mountain True.

Once they’ve blended their teaching styles and combined their websites, this merger could be an important development for the Southern Appalachians.

Let’s see how the two differ:

Mountain True, which previously merged with two other western North Carolina non-profits, “has been an insistent advocate for protecting the natural resources of the mountains,” wrote Kathryn Newfont of Mars Hill College. “It has a history of mobilizing large constituencies to become active in battles over land use.”

Kids use a seine to sample the fish in Brasstown Creek during one of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition’s Creative & Recreational Environmental Education for Kids summer day camps. (Photo: Courtesy of Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition)

Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition “is not your typical non-profit that just goes and splashes headlines all over something we don’t like,” Callie Moore said in 2014. “We don’t just scream when something is going on that we think is wrong. We also praise good things that happen.”

It did in fact alert Mountain True, Southern Environment Law Center and The Wilderness Society to a try by owners of a national-forest inholding to gain road access to their land recently bought entirely within the Nantahala National Forest. HRWC then was a friend of the court in a civil action – an objection to a surprising U.S. Forest Service Finding of No Significant Impact.

Otherwise, HRWC long has favored a gentle, cooperative and encouraging approach to the front-line environmental issues it faced for 24 years.

Scientific Sampling of Water Quality

(In reporting some highlights of the two non-profits, I begin with the one for which I’m a longtime volunteer and that is a fact I readily disclose.)

Callie Moore’s annual “State of the Water” addresses for this area introduce water science to the Back of Beyond (coined by Horace Kephart, and more on that later.) A measured number of locals plus a sprinkling of the ever-transient vacation-home seasonal Americans listen raptly. All are in deep thought. They are weighing whether to make the leap to caring.

Moore graduated from the Environmental Health Program at Western Carolina University and then earned a master’s degree in water resources from Indiana University. She bears up well under stress levels that would drive others to seek another vocation. Moore is doggedly determined to apply her college training to this 1,006-square-mile watershed encompassing Towns and Union counties in Georgia and Cherokee and Clay counties in North Carolina. She has been the coalition’s only executive director since hired in 2003 from the North Carolina Department of Water Quality, where for four years she was a river basin planner.

Lake Chatuge in Hayesville, North Carolina. (Photo by Warren LeMay, Flickr, Creative Commons license.)

Moore’s classic Lake Chatuge Watershed Action Plan became the blueprint for Towns County, Georgia sole commissioner Bill Kendall’s Mountain Protection Ordinance. He said it is “to protect this jewel, Lake Chatuge.” The Moore HRWC document also helped spur the city of Hiawassee’s upgrade to add nutrient reduction technology to the wastewater treatment plant, which discharges treated wastewater to Lake Chatuge via federal and state permits. And thanks to a gift from the Hal Herrin estate, Kendall announced conversion of the Mining Gap atop Bell Knob into an 18-acre county park and historic site in 2017.

Moore is a realist and aided Union County, Ga. sole commissioner Lamar Paris’ leading of 16 Georgia counties including his own to lessen the distance, while improving the quality of, the never-enforced Ga. Dept. of Natural Resources’ 150-foot buffer requirement when building along streams that drain to a public water supply.

Her four major concerns are “excess sediment, excess nutrients, pathogens and too much runoff.” Thanks to Moore, there is for the first time a scientific database of sampling of water quality here. She has “at least 10 years of results from 21 sites.” She identified in 2017 and 2018 the “top ten cleanest streams in the watershed that are actively monitored,” led by Fires Creek in Clay County, North Carolina.

She hosts fundraising galas and trout dinners, river and lake activities such as angling, canoeing, bird-watching, going to see a historic Nottely River weir of the Cherokee Indians, clean-ups of trash spoiling rivers and lakes, and “Kids Days at the Creek.”

The HRWC web site has been a medium comfortable with analysis of:

  • Hayesville Quarry, which is owned by a company in a castle in Ireland. A North Carolina administrative judge approved quarry depth going to 755 feet. It’s a primary NCDOT road riprap mine. A state official testified, “I don’t have a criteria that you can’t mine a pretty mountain.”
  • North Carolina’s approval of hydraulic fracturing of the soil, or fracking.
  • A congressional bid by a Georgia House member for a proposed “I-3” highway from Georgia ports to Cincinnati, Ohio. Somehow, in the advocates’ fantasies, that asphalt interstate would have been paved across a corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
  • And the recurring impact studies for would-be extensions of the Appalachian Regional Commission Corridor K, in Tennessee’s rockslide-riddled Ocoee River and in North Carolina from Robbinsville to Stecoah Gap through a tunnel under the Appalachian Trail.

Moore forged a modest start-up relationship with the cautious Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. They seem genuinely engaged in the work within their own reservation, where they have a 9,200-word wastewater discharge ordinance.

Her non-profit was formed by county Soil and Water Conservation leaders of this watershed. They included for a time the future Brasstown, North Carolina “Possum Drop” organizer Clay Logan. Meanwhile, a Hiawassee, Georgia attorney, Rick Stancil, did pro bono the incorporation of the non-profit in 1995.

The Hiwasee River. (Photo courtesy of Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition)

That the Hiwassee River flows north frees Moore’s organization from any role in the “Water Wars” being fought over fresh water by Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

Social media has retired the excuse here that it is pointless to adopt state-government reforms since Cherokee County is “nearer other states’ capitals than our own.”

What a reporter termed the “Graham Cracker” was a tired riposte at public meetings declaring how such and such an environmental reform on the agenda was best not undertaken, since “the folks in Graham County didn’t like it.”

A Difficult Setting

Cherokee County, North Carolina is located at the far western tip of the state and has Murphy (population 1,638) for its county seat.

The county had no landfills for 135 years, from 1837 to 1972. It located no supervised recycling centers in the Hiwassee Lake basin for 73 years, from the closure of the dam by Tennessee Valley Authority in 1940 until 2013. And the county’s board of commissioners did not increase from three to five members until 2012.

The Cherokee and Clay counties’ boards of commissioners deleted HRWC from their annual fiscal-year budgets this decade. At about the same time, one-term North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory (2013-17) gutted the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund by 90 percent. It now accrues state funding only from the sales of a particular type of auto tag. TVA ended its River Partners program.

Multiple local sources, without naming names, have claimed that Cherokee County citizens were among the Americans who were secretly employed at the Clinton Engineer Works, 110 miles from Murphy. The works, which were in fact the secret government facility built in 1943, produced enriched uranium for the Manhattan Project, according to Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb. On the walls of the works were posters of the “Three Wise Monkeys” directing the employees to “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,” according to Cynthia C. Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Washington D.C.

As secret uranium workers from here traveled to their secret Manhattan Project jobs, they would have regularly passed the Copper Basin Mining District. This global harm-bringer to the earth’s surface covered 32,000 acres in Polk County, Tennessee, which adjoins Cherokee County, North Carolina. It was strip-mined for a century, from the late 1800s to 1987. Its best-known copper mine was the 1899-1959 Burra Burra.

Murphy is a setting so remote that the early 20th Century St. Louis librarian turned reclusive and sometimes acerbic observer of the mountain scene, Horace Kephart, called the terminus here of the Murphy Branch of the Southern Railway the “Back of Beyond.” (The first-ever book-length biography of Kephart, by George Ellison and Janet McCue of Bryson City, has been published this year by the Great Smoky Mountains Association.)

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians surprised environmentalists when Caesar’s Harrah’s chose to name after the Valley River a tribal gaming casino that opened near Murphy. This may appear to recognize the river is a splendid environmental element. It isn’t. As of 2012, eight miles of it including where it passed the future casino ranked high on a list of seven streams in this basin that were flunking requirements of Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. All had too much turbidity or fecal coliform bacteria or they are poor communities of fish or macro-invertebrates.

Mountain True Adds Allies for Its Battles

According to the Mountain True web site, the predecessor “Western North Carolina Alliance was founded … by residents in Macon County who organized to protect their local national forests from oil and gas exploration.” It continues:

“After that successful effort, WNCA went on to help defeat a proposed nuclear waste dump in Buncombe County (1984), launch a campaign to stop clear-cutting in the national forests, lead a four-year campaign to stop the City of Asheville from clear cutting in the Asheville Watershed (1990)… and lead a campaign for passage of the Clean Smokestacks Act (2002).

“In 1994, WNCA claimed victory in its nine-year campaign to stop clear-cutting in the national forests when the Forest Service released a new Management Plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests that eliminated clear-cutting as a management tool and reduced overall logging levels.

“In 2010, WNCA became home to the French Broad Riverkeeper, who which serves as the primary protector and defender of the French Broad River. In 2012, the Watauga Riverkeeper joined the team to serve as the primary watchdog and spokesperson for the Elk and Watauga Rivers, which run from their headwaters on Grandfather Mountain and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Watauga Lake in east Tennessee.”

Tom Bennett is a retired writer and editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1983-2006. His history of the newspaper, “The First 133 Years, History of The Constitution and The Journal,” is the source of the timeline on the publication’s website.

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