Preserving the priceless

“This property is unique, and so preservation is in the public interest. The developer isn’t helpful, but what’s disturbing us … is that the state never got a chance to make a counteroffer.”

— Bill Thomas, Sierra Club Cedar Mountain

When it comes to saving nature’s treasures, political partisanship should be left behind as good citizens march forward, shoulder to shoulder. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. A situation in the DuPont State Forest provides a sorry example.

A subsidiary of E.I. DuPont de Nemours sold its holdings in that area, and some 7,600 acres became state forest — but there was a hole in the doughnut, as conservationists put it. Another company acquired the manufacturing plant itself, with about 2,200 acres right in the middle. Nobody is trying to shut down the plant, but the land is a problem.

It’s a natural part of the whole, long recognized as one of the most beautiful places in this region. Its three famous waterfalls — Triple Falls, High Falls and Bridal Veil Falls — have ranked among the outstanding attractions for visitors to the Land of the Sky since the 18th century. Some things just transcend commercial considerations.

Some local people don’t see it that way; apparently, they’re more interested in the tax-revenue potential from letting a developer come in and fill the place with cabins or condos or cottages or something. And many say that you should be able to do whatever you please with your own property: They oppose taking private lands for any purpose at all.

Now how do they suppose we built our system of roads and highways? Created the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Built the Blue Ridge Parkway? Saved the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite? When the crosstown expressway cut through downtown Asheville, some 600 houses were demolished. Did they mount any protests?

The Council of State (composed of 10 elected high officials) wants to do something. Nobody in his right mind wants to take lands arbitrarily — certainly not without paying the full appraised fair-market value — but what are you going to do if commercial interests thumb their noses at the public interest?

Well, you say, profit is at the heart of capitalism. Yes, and that’s why it produces a higher standard of living, while communist countries like Cuba struggle to make ends meet. But conservation of public lands has been a well established part of the American way of life since the days of John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt.

From the Atlantic to the Pacific and down to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Great Lakes to the rocky Rio Grande: This land is your land, this land is my land, from the redwood forests … to the New York island. Oh, yes, this land was made for you and me. We’re not talking about throwing someone out of his home. We’re talking about corporations.

And something is wrong when the state doesn’t bid for this property in order to let a company make a profit off short-term ownership, and allow another company to make a profit from privatizing it with incompatible structures. Well now, you say, who’s to say what’s compatible? The Council of State — that’s who — representing the citizens of the state of North Carolina.

Mike Easley is our state’s attorney general. He wants to use the right of eminent domain to keep this land open and protected. Some see that as a dangerous assault on protections provided under law. That’s wrong. By statute, land can be condemned to develop state forests and parks. Yes, it’s rarely used — but that’s because most people cooperate.

If you’re talking about arbitrary or capricious seizure for improper reasons, that’s something else altogether: exploitation, personal gain, conflict of interest, and so on. A lot of people recognize what’s at stake and agree to sell or grant easements. But if some developer is determined to go ahead, the state’s only available recourse is to exercise that right.

So what can you do about it? Write or call the governor. (His western office is in Asheville. Look it up in the telephone directory.) And while you’re at it, get Mr. Easley’s address and phone number. Write a good letter to the newspaper of your choice. The real enemy of conservation is apathy, indifference. And Asheville and Buncombe County have the lowest voter turnout in the state!

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy is also located in Asheville. It seeks to protect the Highlands of Roan from commercial encroachment, and it deals with similar situations as well. They’re in the phone book, too. And they accept contributions for specific purposes. Remember, 1 percent of the people do the thinking for the rest.

A developer can find a place to exploit somewhere else, but you can’t create a mountain or natural waterfalls out of thin air. God put them there. And what God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. Many churches have come to this realization and are joining the mainstream conservation movement. Pray, brothers. Pray, sisters. Amen.

Some 400 acres of DuPont State Forest are in Henderson County; the rest is in Transylvania County, including most of the unprotected tract. And the county commissioners are dead-set against trying to protect the land. They say the calls are running five-to-one against it. “You just can’t condemn property because it’s beautiful,” one opined.

And there you have it: Some say you can, some say you can’t. Which side are you on — those willing to let it be ruined, or those trying to save it for coming generations? Forever is a long time. We can imagine a time in the future when someone might ask what happened — why small profits were allowed to determine final outcomes.

Sometimes you have to take a bird’s-eye view, rather than an earthworm’s.

[David Bailey, a longtime resident of Asheville, is a retired stockbroker and free-lance writer who likes to focus on the city, including the history of the Asheville Civic Center.]

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