Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina

Overview

In the late twentieth century, residents of the Blue Ridge mountains in western North Carolina fiercely resisted certain environmental efforts, even while launching aggressive initiatives of their own. Kathryn Newfont examines the environmental history of this region over the course of three hundred years, identifying what she calls commons environmentalism—a cultural strain of conservation in American history that has gone largely unexplored.

Efforts in the 1970s to expand ...

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Overview

In the late twentieth century, residents of the Blue Ridge mountains in western North Carolina fiercely resisted certain environmental efforts, even while launching aggressive initiatives of their own. Kathryn Newfont examines the environmental history of this region over the course of three hundred years, identifying what she calls commons environmentalism—a cultural strain of conservation in American history that has gone largely unexplored.

Efforts in the 1970s to expand federal wilderness areas in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests generated strong opposition. For many mountain residents the idea of unspoiled wilderness seemed economically unsound, historically dishonest, and elitist. Newfont shows that local people’s sense of commons environmentalism required access to the forests that they viewed as semipublic places for hunting, fishing, and working. Policies that removed large tracts from use were perceived as “enclosure” and resisted.

These battles often pitted industrialists against environmentalists. Newfont argues that the side that most effectively hitched its cause to local residents’ commons culture usually won. A few perceptive activists realized that the same cultural ground that yielded wilderness opposition could also produce ambitious protection efforts, such as Blue Ridge residents’ opposition to petroleum exploration and clearcut timber harvesting.

Incorporating deep archival work and years of interviews and conversations with Appalachian residents, Blue Ridge Commons reveals a tradition of people building robust forest protection movements on their own terms.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The Blue Ridge forests, and the human communities they have sustained, have found in Kathryn Newfont an historian who deftly captures their cultural significance and environmental import. Blue Ridge Commons provides a close reading of local aspirations and needs, and suggests how what has happened in these particular mountains also has been manifest across the nation and globe. It is an inspired contribution to the writing of American environmental history."—Char Miller, author of Ground Work: Conservation in American Environmental Culture

"Very well written and carefully researched, Blue Ridge Commons breaks new ground in Appalachian history and in our broader understanding of the politics of environmental movements. Newfont's central premise, the idea of commons environmentalism, is timely both for historians and for environmental activists, and her book will be recognized down the road, I believe, as a seminal publication that helped to change the way we understand Appalachian culture and its complex relationship to the land."—Ronald Eller, author of Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945

“Newfont’s book is not just eye opening but very well written.”—Paul Salstrom, The North Carolina Historical Review

Blue Ridge Commons makes a valuable contribution to the growing field of southern environmental history. . . . Anyone ever left deeply unsatisfied by the rhetorical dichotomy of ‘jobs-versus-the-environment’ will find great satisfaction in the framework of commons environmentalism and the new ways Newfont helps us understand. . .”—Sarah Mittlefehldt, Journal of Southern History

“I highly recommend Blue Ridge Commons for scholars, students, activists, and policy makers interested in environmental politics or Appalachian history. . . . I hope that Blue Ridge Commons signals the start of a more direct engagement with the commons among environmental historians, and perhaps an expansion of the interdisciplinary effort to study common property regimes.”—Brian Grabbatin, Journal of Historical Geography

“As Newfont convincingly argues, wilderness advocates and activists opposed to unbridled resource extraction recorded their greatest victories when they convinced local residents that their actions constituted a defense of the ‘forest commons.’ When they failed to do so, their environmental campaigns faltered. Ironically, opponents of wilderness designation enjoyed similar success when they employed the same strategy. In this meticulously research and superbly written book, Newfont cast light on this heretofore neglected chapter of environmental history. Along the way, she makes sense of this seeming paradox and shatters the stereotype of the anti-environment mountain resident.” —Geoffrey L. Buckley, The South Carolina Historical Magazine

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Kathryn Newfont is an associate professor of history and faculty chair for the Ramsey Center for Regional Studies at Mars Hill College.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Paul S. Sutter ix Acknowledgments xiii Maps xix Introduction of Forests and Commons 1
1. "The Custom of Our Country": The Appalachian Forest Commons 15
2. Response to Devastation: Organizing Forests in the Southern Appalachians 49
3. Plenty of Trouble: Creating Federal Forests in the Blue Ridge 71
4. De Jure Commons: National Forests and Blue Ridge Neighbors 97
5. Contested Forests: Commons, Clearcutting, and Wilderness 124
6. Wilderness as Commons Enclosure: Rare II Opposition 146
7. Wilderness as Commons Defense: The Southern Nantahala 168
8. Mobilizing Commons Defense: "Oil Fever" Threatens the Forests 189
9. Clearcutting Returns: Timber Enclosure Threatens the Forests 227
10. Commons Environmentalism Mobilized: Western North Carolina Alliance's Cut the Clearcutting! Campaign 251
Conclusion An American Commons in the Blue Ridge 271
Afterword A Call to Commons 274
Notes 279
Bibliography 325
Index 355

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