Environmental Extremism

The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition’s recent unveiling of their “Return the Great Forest Campaign” reveals nothing new about what these environmental extremists really want for our region. Granted, it’s packaged in an expensive, high-tech wrapper and has been ceremoniously blessed by the pantheist clergies within our diverse community. But when you peel the wrapper off, it’s the same old Southern Appalachian Wildlands Project these fanatics published in 1992.

While the radical proposals and rhetoric of the Wildlands Project have been toned down considerably in their new campaign, the ultimate goal of moving the people off the land and bringing back the large predators (grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, etc.) hasn’t changed.

Unlike the original Wildlands Project, this new version doesn’t promote the immediate closing of the Blue Ridge Parkway for use as a wildlife migration corridor, or dismantling the region’s dams, or closing Interstate 40 and other major highways throughout the region, but there is reason to believe these goals still exist.

The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition made a major tactical error in November 1996 when members of the fledgling group announced to an environmental conference I attended in Gatlinburg, Tenn., that they were chartered to promote the strategies laid out in the Wildlands Project. This well documented public commitment forever ties the coalition to the extreme proposals brought forth in 1992. Yet, coalition employee Hugh Irwin was quoted in the April 11 Observer saying, “This week’s proposal has no connection to the Wildlands Project.” Irwin co-authored the current proposal as well as the original Wildlands Project document. How can there not be a connection?

The coalition is made up of 17 member groups including the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society (N.C. office), the Wilderness Society, the Western North Carolina Alliance, the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project and the Southern Environmental Law Center. Of these member groups, the Southern Environmental Law Center is the most influential, because it controls the coalition’s purse strings.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, based in Charlottesville, Va., utilizes its battery of lawyers to arrange funding for the coalition. For instance, in 1998, according to IRS reports, the law center received a little more than $5 million in contributions, mainly from wealthy foundations and individuals. It in turn granted the coalition $956,337 of foundation money for its campaigns. Funding announcements and other IRS reports through the years confirm that the coalition’s operating budget hovers around $1 million per year.

The coalition uses these monies to pay its staff of eight to lobby local, state and federal officials for statutory and regulatory changes necessary to implement the Wildlands Project. It also spends extravagant sums of money on media events promoting a hidden agenda through “scientific” studies.

The current proposal is a wonderful example. Some of the 2.8 million acres proposed as “protected wildlands” are said to contain many “old growth” forests inventoried by one of the coalition’s member organizations. The report says one of the largest stands of national forest old growth is found in the first eastern U.S. Forest Service purchase in 1911 near Mount Mitchell.

The 1911 U.S. Forest Service appraisals show a very different history. In fact, the 10,000-acre Mount Mitchell Unit appraisal reads, “There are no non-timbered lands on this tract,” meaning these lands have all been logged. This doesn’t sound to me like the pristine, untouched scenario we so often associate with “old growth.”

Putting it in abbreviated perspective, what we have is a collection of organized environmental fanatics nursing wealthy foundations who play “scientist” to influence the media and public to support what they really want. And, according to the Wildlands Project, what they really want is no less than 50 percent of our land off limits to any human influence.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about the coalition’s recent “vision” for our region is the fact they have the state of North Carolina endorsing their efforts. The N.C. Natural Heritage Program, an agency under the umbrella of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, appears on the “endorsers” list on the coalition’s Web site. And folks wonder why we have to fight the state over mandatory stream “buffers” and other environmental regulations that have no scientific basis.

Last Sept. 11 we witnessed what happens when extremism is not dealt with on the international level. I think it’s time we deal with the extremism going on in our own backyards.