Commons environmentalism mobilized: The western North Carolina alliance and the cut the clearcutting! Campaign

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" The people have spoken with a loud voice , " Mary Kelly declared as she and other Western North Carolina Alliance activists delivered an enormous petition to the U.S. Forest Service's Asheville office on Cut the Clearcutting! Day in 1989. "Wow," responded Forest Supervisor Bjorn Dahl, staring at the giant document. Fully unfurled, the petition stretched more than four city blocks. It contained no fewer than 15,500 signatures. More than two hundred people representing at least twelve mountain counties marched the massive ribbon of names through the streets of Asheville to National Forests in North Carolina headquarters. Armed with hand-lettered signs, banners, and a large American flag, they had spent the last two hours listening to speeches and traditional mountain music in the plaza downtown. Hunters, loggers, fiddlers, foresters, biologists, potters, and organizers took turns at the microphone, some with mountain accents and some without. Despite overcast skies and chilly weather, their mood was jubilant.1 This April 15 street demonstration built on years of anticlearcutting activism in Appalachian North Carolina. The petition and rally carried local forest watchdogs' best hopes for reversing Forest Service policy in the region, which here as elsewhere favored large-scale clearcut timber harvesting above all other methods. Western North Carolina's widely beloved Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests contained nearly one million woodland acres. The Western North Carolina Alliance (WNCA), a regional grassroots environmental organization founded in the early 1980s, had organized Cut the Clearcutting! Day as the culmination of an intense four-month campaign of public opposition to clearcutting in these forests. The enormous petition served as a campaign centerpiece. With it organizers intended to showcase the breadth and depth of hostility to clearcutting in the region. They gathered the signatures in a coordinated multicounty effort, knocking on doors and setting up signing stations at convenience stores, supermarkets, and tire shops.2 Organizers planned Cut the Clearcutting! Day's spirited events to maximize publicity for the petition's delivery and for the larger anticlearcutting effort. In the rally, they also showcased the WNCA's trademark brand of commons-friendly environmentalism. Many mountain residents valued the Nantahala and Pisgah as commons harvest grounds rather than as untouched wilderness. In the crowd, protesters carried posters reflecting these harvest relationships with the woods. "Stop Clearcutting Says Forester" read one such sign. "Bearhunters against Clearcutting" trumpeted another. "We Oppose Clearcutting NOT Logging," proclaimed a third. Much of the rhetoric from the stage echoed these messages. "We can put those logs on those trucks," thundered Alliance member Bob Padgett in his anticlearcutting speech. Padgett, a U.S. Forest Service retiree and active private forester, delivered one of many addresses emphasizing the productive value of Appalachian forests.3 As these signs and speeches demonstrated, the Alliance's anticlearcutting campaign drew its central strength not from wilderness environmentalism but from a different source. The idea of wilderness, emphasizing as it did an absence of people and of human work in the woods, failed to resonate with many longtime mountain residents. It often seemed to them elitist, economically unsound, and historically dishonest. Thus wilderness-inspired environmental campaigns typically gained little traction among mountain people. Yet as the boisterous Alliance rally and the eventual total of more than sixteen thousand petition signatures clearly proved, mountain people could be passionate, effective, and ambitious defenders of Appalachian forests. In western North Carolina, they fought clearcutting and other industrial development of the region's woodlands with remarkable vigor and tenacity. In Cut the Clearcutting! and in other campaigns, WNCA members championed forest protection goals so far reaching that national environmental groups were unwilling to support them. Yet the Alliance won widespread backing for these bold initiatives from a diverse array of mountain residents. Just as elsewhere, post-World War II battles over forest resources pitted industrialists against environmentalists. In western North Carolina, however, commons users-who were typically rural and often working class-served as swing voters in these battles. The side that most effectively hitched its wagon to commons culture usually won. Wilderness opponents in the late 1970s, for instance, ceaselessly touted commons concerns as they (quite successfully) fought proposed Pisgah and Nantahala additions to the federal wilderness system.4 With its Cut the Clearcutting! campaign, the Western North Carolina Alliance tapped the latent power of commons culture, this time for an environmentalist cause. The WNCA framed its opposition to clearcutting as a form of commons forest defense. The organization 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. This strategy succeeded in making the Alliance's anticlearcutting position attractive even to many mountain inhabitants who did not ordinarily consider themselves environmentalists. Moreover, with its petition drive, the WNCA provided rural mountain residents with an organized political channel through which to express their protectionist stance. Presented with this opportunity, residents leaped. "Give me that. I'll take it home and get my folks to sign that."5 In effect, though they never used the term, WNCA activists pioneered a form of commons environmentalism. As a result, what Mary Kelly told Bjorn Dahl at Cut the Clearcutting! Day was no exaggeration. "The people have spoken with a loud voice. They do not like what clearcutting is doing to our mountains."6.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMountains of Injustice
Subtitle of host publicationSocial and Environmental Justice in Appalachia
Number of pages27
StatePublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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