For many environmental organizations across Western North Carolina, COVID-19 fell like a lightning-struck tree across the path to progress. Local climate justice protests were canceled in deference to social distancing guidelines. Fundraisers and other events moved online to mixed results. Public land closures created a backlog of trail maintenance.
But like an intrepid hiker, WNC’s activists and organizers have bushwhacked new trails for action in the world of the pandemic. Xpress reached out to representatives from six area environmental nonprofits to learn more about how they continued to strive for a better planet in 2020.
Respondents include Cari Barcas, community engagement director for the Green Built Alliance; Adam Colette, program director for Dogwood Alliance; Victoria Estes, coordinator for Sunrise Movement Asheville; Sara Landry, executive director for Friends of DuPont Forest; Steffi Rausch, Asheville lead organizer for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby; and Kieran Roe, executive director of Conserving Carolina.
How has WNC’s relationship with the outdoors changed during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Barcas: One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the opportunity for people to restore their connection with nature. For too long, so many of us have felt chained to indoor responsibilities at home or at work. It was a literal breath of fresh air as the outdoors emerged as a refuge and safe place, and we learned we could take shelter in nature. This past year has offered a striking reminder that our individual health is inextricably intertwined with the well-being of our surrounding environment.
Colette: I think the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how our fast-paced, hectic lives are out of sync with the natural world. As folks slowed down (aka quarantined), I think people began to have greater appreciation for the biodiversity in their backyards.
Estes: The pandemic has been an excuse for a lot of businesses to use more single-use plastic, and it has been an opportunity for the local government to push through shady deals like the one made with Raytheon (Pratt & Whitney) that will only further damage the environment.
Roe: Our parks, trails and public lands are being loved and used by more folks than ever before. Conserving Carolina’s trailhead parking areas are overflowing. I think there has been a rebirth of interest in nature and the outdoors.
What disruption due to COVID-19 has been most challenging for your organization?
Colette: I’m most worried about our ability to celebrate, in person, the 25th anniversary of Dogwood Alliance in 2021. Our supporters and members have such an authentic, community feel, something you just don’t get with “virtual” celebrations.
Estes: 2020 was supposed to be a big year for the climate justice movement, but with everything else going on, it got put on hold. And the pandemic made the perfect excuse for President Donald Trump and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler to roll back on EPA regulations for corporations.
Landry: This year was our 20th anniversary. We had several events planned throughout the year to celebrate the Friends of the Falls [the community group that first rallied public support for the DuPont State Recreational Forest] and we had to move them all online. We are still hopeful that we will be able to celebrate our 21st birthday together.
Rausch: COVID-19 definitely put a delay on people having the time to focus on anything but COVID, even though climate is the next big-wave impact we will see to our economy. At the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, we were concerned with the decrease in volunteers getting active during this time. But moving to virtual meetings and presentations has enabled us to meet more easily and bring in more experienced speakers who can work from the comfort of their own homes.
How has your organization responded to the year’s conversations around racial justice?
Barcas: As an anti-racist organization, we are committed to increasing our efforts toward inclusion, equity and justice by working tirelessly to build healthier homes for all of our neighbors. We continue to invest heavily in our Energy Savers Network program, which directly addresses the energy inequities that disproportionately burden people of color by offering free efficiency upgrades to low-income homes in Buncombe County. We are also in the process of curating a class for 2021 that will explore the ties between racial justice, civil rights and green building.
Colette: If we’re going to truly address systemic racism and cultures of white supremacy, we have to address power structures and resource allocation within our own organizations. Dogwood Alliance is working deeply in both these areas by funneling and connecting resources to the most impacted communities (over $175,000 in 2020) while directly incorporating their voices in strategic decision-making at every level of the organization.
Rausch: CCL has reached out to the [Asheville-based] Racial Justice Coalition to discuss how we can partner with them on educating the public about environmental justice issues being a social justice issue and how we need a federal climate policy that prevents climate and economic impacts to the most vulnerable of society.
Roe: We’ve been ramping up our internal and external work on equity, diversity and inclusion. We want to continue to become more inclusive and create opportunities for everyone, of all backgrounds, to connect and get inspired by nature.
What brought you the greatest joy in 2020?
Colette: Honestly, just the multitude of ways our community showed its inspiring creativity and fiery passion. It gives me hope that we can and will tackle the enormous challenges ahead. Oh, and the Marco Polo app — that brought me great joy.
Estes: Seeing my community organize for peace and justice, namely, watching the Asheville Survival Program kick off and provide thousands of families in our community with the things they need to survive.
Landry: Nature put on quite a show this year. From the blue ghost fireflies in May to the amazing colors in fall to the quiet of winter, nature brought me joy every time I went to the forest.
Roe: Opening up new trails in the Hickory Nut Gorge, adding new land to DuPont State Forest and making exciting progress in the creation of the Ecusta Trail — the 19-mile rail-trail that will run from Hendersonville to Brevard.