Down to earth

Tucked away near the bottom of the ballot, the Soil and Water Conservation District’s Board of Supervisors might not be on many voters’ radar. But if you own livestock or a working farm, are a builder or developer, or just someone who lives downstream from any of those activities — which covers a good many of us — this board’s decisions could affect you significantly.

Like its counterparts nationwide, the Buncombe County district educates farmers and other landowners and works with them to protect streams and control erosion. The agency distributes grant funds and manages cost-share and incentives programs that help farmers install things like alternative watering systems and fencing to keep cattle out of waterways.

Congress established these districts during the 1930s ecological crisis known as the Dust Bowl, recognizing that since most of the continental U.S. is privately owned, the active support of landowners would be critical to the success of conservation efforts.

The district office (155 Hilliard Ave. in downtown Asheville) offers a wealth of information, including soils data, floodplain and topographic maps, an archive of aerial photographs and consultations with staff experts.

The district works strictly on a voluntary basis with landowners. In some cases, it may be able to arrange for state and federal funding covering 75 percent of the cost of implementing best-management practices or restoration efforts. The Board of Supervisors sets priorities for the district and decides which projects get funded, whether it’s eradicating invasive species or repairing hurricane damage.

This year, there are two open seats on the five-member board.

Incumbent Jeff Turner is completing his first four-year term. Describing himself as a "poverty-stricken, disabled Navy veteran," Turner notes: "People put me in there because they need some hope that things will change. We're getting things done that matter to the health and welfare of people and animals in Buncombe County. I'm happy as a pig in mud!"

Asked about his top priority if re-elected, Turner said, "I'd like to see us get all livestock out of our streams within two years." He’s written letters to former Gov. Jim Hunt and other high-ranking officials concerning the contamination at the former CTS of Asheville plant. "It's time to clean that mess up," Turner asserts.

Incumbent Elise Israel worked for the district for 10 years as an administrator and education coordinator and has served on the board since 2002. She has a degree in forestry and is a substitute teacher in the Buncombe County Schools.

"I want the people of Buncombe County to know that I understand what it takes to get work done,” Israel wrote in an e-mail. “To work toward keeping our creeks and rivers healthy, clean and attractive. To work toward getting conservation practices on the ground that will preserve the soil and reduce sedimentation and erosion. To work toward preserving our small farms and farmlands so our diverse county maintains its heritage and rural character. More now than ever, small-farm products are an important part of our local economy."

Alan Ditmore, a farmer from Leicester who’s making his fourth bid for the position, has criticized the board in the past for endorsing such methods as no-till agriculture, which he says merely trades the prospect of erosion for excessive reliance on chemical soil treatments. Having worked with groups like Zero Population Growth and Planned Parenthood, Ditmore maintains that "80 to 90 percent of environmental protection is in the social issues. It's population control more than solar panels: Gay rights has more [positive] environmental impact than solar panels." He also says residents don't have ready access to board members’ voting records. "That's something to fix right up front," Ditmore asserts.

Chase Hubbard oversees Warren Wilson College’s 350-acre farm. Over the past decade, Hubbard says he’s implemented a wide range of conservation practices, such as developing streamside buffers on extensive portions of the Swannanoa River and its tributaries. He’s developed areas solely for wildlife habitat, including extensive hedgerows and grassland for ground-nesting birds, and his team plants hundreds of trees each year.

Other conservation techniques include crop rotation, rotational grazing, farm-scale composting, grassed waterways in highly erodible soils, and a 1,600-square-foot feed/waste shed for cattle, to minimize the herd’s impact on Warren Wilson's streams. Hubbard also serves on Buncombe County's Agriculture Advisory Board for Farmland Preservation and has been active in efforts to conserve the college’s farmland.

— Susan Andrew can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 153, or at sandrew@mountainx.com.

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