It’s no secret that locals and visitors alike fall in love with Western North Carolina largely because of its natural amenities. For some organizations, preserving the region’s environment is of paramount importance, as seen in April when MountainTrue, alongside several other local organizations, proposed a ban on single-use plastic bags in Asheville. The initiative garnered support across the community and among local officials but was abruptly brought to a halt in September when the N.C. General Assembly barred municipalities from regulating plastic bags.
However, WNC was able to take several other steps forward to help preserve the local environment. In August, RiverLink opened the greenway at Karen Cragnolin Park after 17 years of removing toxic soil and replanting native grasses and flora. Additionally, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy secured 343 acres on top of Deaverview Mountain for a public park.
Xpress asked several local environmental activists to reflect on how the environment and related issues shaped 2023.
What local environmental issue was underreported in 2023?
“After China banned crypto mining, the number of U.S. crypto mines exploded, including here in WNC. Mining cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin provides little in the way of jobs, economic benefits or tax revenues for our communities. Instead, they gobble up immense amounts of electricity that should be used for more socially productive purposes and threaten North Carolina’s green energy agenda. Both Buncombe and Madison counties have passed moratoriums on new crypto mines, but we really need broader statewide action.” — Bob Wagner, executive director, MountainTrue
“We learned in 2022 that the French Broad River and its watershed contribute over $3.8 billion annually to the region’s economy but that 19 miles of the river [from the airport to Woodfin] and multiple tributaries are classified as impaired due to fecal coliform. The river’s water quality and ecosystem are fragile, but we continue to build and develop, putting additional pressures on the river and watershed without acknowledging the consequences of doing so.” — Lisa Raleigh, executive director, RiverLink
“I think it’s easy to lose sight of how the global change in climate is impacting us in the French Broad River valley. For us, it means an influx of people seeking a cool respite and also a reordering of wild species responding to hotter conditions at lower elevations. Our mountains are a treasure box of perfect conditions for humans and biodiversity, but all the systems are under strain now. ” — Jay Leutze, senior adviser, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy
“Both the City of Asheville and Buncombe County have passed 100% renewable goals. It would be nice if their progress toward meeting these goals was reported and also their plans going forward to meet the goals.” — Ken Brame, president, Sierra Club’s WNC Group
Whose local environmental contributions surprised you the most in 2023?
“I was delighted by the attendance and participation in the French Broad River Partnership’s annual meeting. The panelists reflected the importance of the river and watershed to the region and included decision-makers and thought leaders from our elected officials, government, industry, business and tourism stakeholders, in addition to the 200-plus in attendance. It was a wonderful example of everyone coming together to talk about this critical resource and how we can work together to protect it.” — Lisa Raleigh
“The closing of the Canton paper mill cost our region good-paying jobs and will be a painful chapter for many families in Haywood and Buncombe counties. There are also ongoing pollution issues that need to be addressed. However, the French Broad and Pigeon rivers are already bouncing back. I’ve also been heartened by Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers’ commitment to cleaning up the site and his vision for a bright postindustrial future for the town.” — Bob Wagner
“Woodfin approved new zoning laws to better manage development, including restrictions on steep-slope development, along with restrictions on short-term rentals to better manage its explosive grow and shortage of affordable housing. Weaverville purchased its first all-electric police car, making it one of the first towns in North Carolina to do that. Buncombe County is establishing a Green Fund to help local citizens invest in energy efficiency.” — Ken Brame
“Kids! At our Community Farm in Alexander, kids keep showing up to help us build trails, help with habitat management and implement our regenerative farming concept. Their enthusiasm and elbow grease inspire us all to keep working.” — Jay Leutze
What was your organization’s greatest achievement in 2023?
“The Sierra Club, along with a coalition of other environmental groups, worked to educate citizens on the negative impacts of plastic bags and Styrofoam. Surveys showed overwhelming support from both citizens and businesses for a ban on both. The city councils of Asheville, Woodfin, Black Mountain, Weaverville and Buncombe County were in favor of the bans.” — Ken Brame
“In 2022, 19 miles of the French Broad River were listed as impaired due to bacteria pollution. MountainTrue found that the biggest culprit is stormwater runoff from farms. This year, we successfully secured $2 million in the North Carolina budget to help farmers in the French Broad Basin fence cattle out of streams and make improvements to reduce runoff. The French Broad River is a vital natural and economic resource that needs to be protected.” — Bob Wagner
“Securing the chance to create a county park on Deaverview Mountain. The mountain was slated for development, but now we have three years to raise funds to create what will be the most scenic county park in the Eastern United States.” — Jay Leutze
“RiverLink was delighted to activate and connect Karen Cragnolin Park’s greenway this past September in honor of our founder. Karen Cragnolin Park, a former industrial brownfield, perfectly embodies Karen’s commitment to promoting both the environmental and economic vitality of the watershed. In addition, we completed the Southside Community Stormwater Project, a collaborative effort to address water quality issues and the needs of a marginalized community.” — Lisa Raleigh
What was the biggest setback for local environmental initiatives in 2023?
“It was the N.C. General Assembly adding a provision in the final budget bill that prohibited local governments from regulating single-use plastics and Styrofoam containers. This happened just as our local towns and Buncombe County were poised to pass local bans. Unfortunately, the current supermajority in Raleigh had more concern for industry lobbyists in Raleigh than the wishes of local businesses and citizens or the health impacts on people from microplastics in our water and air.” — Ken Brame
“Our policy and funding for wildlife crossings has to keep up with all this road building and expansion. We have taken baby steps as far as some initial funding for better underpasses that wildlife can use, but the time to fund safe crossings for migrating elk, bears, deer, turtles, right down to salamanders, is before bridges and culverts are installed. Retrofitting is really expensive, and the costs of wildlife and automobile collisions are catastrophic for all involved. Our natural landscape must become more connected, more climate resilient, and we are missing opportunities right now. ” — Jay Leutze
“Two come to mind. In March, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a management plan that puts 100,000 acres of old-growth forests and several endangered bat species at risk. Then in September, as we were about to win ordinances banning single-use plastic bags in Asheville and Buncombe County, the state legislature, at the 11th hour, inserted an amendment into the budget that prevents local governments from regulating or banning food packaging, including single-use plastic bags.” — Bob Wagner
“The single-use plastic coalition was an amazing example of environmental leadership, collaboration and support in our region and was backed by science, legal policy, advocacy and a pathway forward. It was disappointing when the General Assembly passed a budget that precluded pursuing this initiative. ” — Lisa Raleigh
What should be the top environmental priority in WNC in 2024?
“Loss of farmland. Small farmers are in crisis, and conservation can help keep our farmers in business. Buncombe County does a better job than any other county in the state in helping farmers find conservation solutions that can keep them on the land, but the headwinds are fierce. Federal agriculture policy continues to incentivize consolidation and a business model that disadvantages the family farm in favor of corporate giants. WNC’s economy and culture evolved with close-to-the-soil family farms. Converting more of these productive operations to residential subdivisions would be a tremendous loss to us all.” — Jay Leutze
“RiverLink believes addressing the French Broad River’s water quality — and the sediment loading that is greatly compromising it — needs to be an environmental priority throughout the region. We must take some pressure off this economic backbone and utilize green stormwater infrastructure. With the ongoing development boom throughout the county and watershed, this is the only way to reduce the sediment loading, flooding vulnerability and existing water quality impairments. Too much is at stake not to.” — Lisa Raleigh
“Tackling our region’s housing crisis. Housing as an environmental issue? Yes, because we desperately need more housing, and where and how that housing is built is incredibly important. By embracing missing-middle housing and building closer to public amenities and where infrastructure already exists, we can meet our housing needs in a way that is more climate friendly and energy efficient, minimizes vehicle miles traveled and reduces sprawling development that encroaches on our forests, farms and green spaces.” — Bob Wagner
“Doing everything we can to fight climate change. Local governments should be transitioning to electric vehicles, making their buildings more energy efficient, creating resilience hubs in vulnerable neighborhoods, and passing a green bond to fund these types of initiatives. We also need to educate people on the economic incentives available to people to buy electric vehicles, heat pumps, induction stoves and making their homes more energy efficient.” — Ken Brame