Public Lands Biologist
What do you wish that small town mayors and town managers knew that they don’t know?
I think that sometimes in Appalachia we lose sight of how special our region is, and how much what we have is what so many people across the nation and the world want. We have clean water, we have beautiful green forests, we’ve got scenic mountains, we’ve got hunting and fishing. We’ve got a connection to the land that a lot of regions of the country don’t have anymore.
From a biologist’s point of view, what do you see as the biggest threat?
The biggest threats to our forests right now are actually non-native pests and pathogens. In recent years, we’ve had hemlock woolly adelgid come through and pretty much wipe out any hemlocks that weren’t treated. Emerald ash borer beetle is coming through and wiping out all the ash trees, and there will continue to be pests and pathogens that come through as a result of global trade. We’re facing other threats to our forests and their functioning too, primarily in the form of rapidly changing climate and also in the form of poorly planned development.
As leaders of a small town, what could a mayor or town manager do?
I think mayors and town mangers can market that fantastic asset we have, of our forests, our streams, and our culture here, our connection to the land. I think that’s what we have that people want.
Do you believe that if more people came in to see it, they would value it and fight for it?
I think there is a double-edged sword there. Having more people come in doesn’t always lead to better economic conditions, it doesn’t always lead to a greater appreciation of the land. I think with the right kind of message though, you will get that. I think it also builds up pride within the local community, and that’s where the energy for protecting the land comes from, it’s from the local community. The local community needs to be in the driver’s seat, as far as guiding visitors towards where they should go, how they should behave, and how development should proceed in the local communities.
At the national level, we’ve already seen some weakening of regulations to safeguard water, streams and these other beautiful assets in Appalachia, so what can people do about what’s happening?
At the national level, I do think it’s important—if you like clean water, stand up for the Clean Water Act. It’s under attack right now. The provision of the Clean Water Act that protects headwater streams and wetlands, small wetlands, is being proposed for repeal by Congress. Public officials, whether they be at an agency or be an elected official, they do respond to public pressure. They try to make you feel like that they’re just going to do what they’re going to do, but they do respond to public pressure. So if there is any issue that you care about, make your voice heard, apply the pressure.
Can you be someone who supports a conservative national agenda and still be for the preservation of your beautiful Appalachian environment?
Absolutely. The root word of conservation is conservative. People forget that sometimes. Conserving our resources is a foundational conservative value that I share. I think there is a false narrative that protecting the environment gets in the way of jobs and growth. The data do not support that. There are some tales out there about how it gets in the way, but it doesn’t.
There are ways that industry and a clean environment can coexist. In western North Carolina, where I’m from, I can point you to the paper plant in Canton, North Carolina, that was started in 1910 and polluted the Pigeon River for years with dioxins. It is now cleaned up; they no longer put dioxins in the river, they put less pollutants in the air, and it is still the largest forest products employer in North Carolina and the town of Canton is dependent on it. They have taken all sorts of environmentally friendly measures and it’s still a thriving business.