Katie Bailey/Carolina Public Press
Julie Mayfield is executive director of the Western North Carolina Alliance. Katie Bailey/Carolina Public Press

Carolina Public Press recently spoke with Julie Mayfield, the executive director of the Western North Carolina Alliance, a 30-year-old grassroots, nonprofit environmental advocacy group with offices in Asheville and Franklin. WNCA’s stated mission is to empower citizens to be advocates for livable communities and the natural environment of Western North Carolina.

Carolina Public Press: How did the Western North Carolina Alliance start?

Julie Mayfield: “We were founded by a group of ordinary people in Macon County in 1982. The ringleader of this ordinary group of people was a 64-year-old grandmother named Esther Cunningham. And at a time in her life when most people would be thinking about slowing down and enjoying their grandkids, Esther instead founded an organization that continues today. The issue that drove her to found the Alliance was notice that the U.S. Forest Service was going to allow oil and gas exploration in the national forest lands of Western North Carolina…

“The Forest Service had applications to explore 900,000 acres of the 1 million acres of national forest land in the mountains. They would have leased those acres for a dollar per acre per year for the interested national and international oil companies…The group of ordinary people were successful in stopping the plans for exploration and went on to continue fighting to protect the mountains’ natural resources.”

CPP: Since the first successful battle, what have been the major successes for the alliance?

JM: “I would say another one is defeating ‘The Road to Nowhere,’ which was a proposed road out in Swain County. It’s got a complicated history but essentially they would have been cutting a road on national park service land in order to serve a very small number of people. It would’ve been very destructive.

“The Clean Smokestacks Act was another. One of my predecessors, Brownie Newman, was very involved in that bill and that was adopted in 2002. That was a bill that required power companies of North Carolina to reduce harmful emissions from their plants in a much more aggressive time frame than was required under federal law.”

CPP: What projects are you currently focusing on?

JM: “Our current programs are land use, public lands and water…We continue to track and monitor every timber sale and every major management decision that happens here in Western North Carolina. We also are very focused on forest restoration and are part of stakeholder groups and advisory committees and work groups working really hand-in-hand with the Forest Service on a whole host of things.

“On the water side, we now have two riverkeepers, the French Broad riverkeeper and the Watauga riverkeeper. So we’re working very intensively on water quality issues (and) water pollution issues.

“For land use, our work takes different forms. We have a community planning program and a smart-growth coalition of varied interests and advocates. And what we have focused on is regional transportation, focusing on the county land use plan to try to better protect our rural farmland and the rural character of Buncombe County. And then in Asheville and in other cities and municipalities in Buncombe County (we are) really making sure we have in place the kind of development policies that encourage denser, mixed-use, in-fill transit-oriented development.”

CPP: What’s in the future for the alliance?

JM: “We’re going to keep all of these programs…We actually think these are the most important issues in Western North Carolina from an environmental standpoint – protecting our forests, protecting our water quality and making sure that the region grows in a sustainable way.

“We are just starting to work on energy issues in a very focused way, in terms of the (newly launched) Beyond Coal campaign. We are not starting a new energy program, but we are partnering with the Sierra Club on that campaign. In my mind that campaign has two sides: part of it is focusing on working with Progress (Energy) to move beyond that (power) plant and close that plant eventually; but then on the other side we have to get there, we have to tell people and teach people and help people use less energy.”

CPP: What are your hopes and concerns for continuing to grow?

JM: “My philosophy is, as a grassroots environmental advocacy organization, I want us to be the first place that people call when they have an environmental problem that they need help with…We have an audacious goal of expanding our membership to 5,000 by 2018. It’s (currently) somewhere between 800 and 1,000.

“It’s easy to get people organized in a crisis, and there’s nothing like a threat to get people focused on what they need to do. The proactive stuff is harder to get people organized around…In order to get people to work with you, your work has to be a mixture of fighting the threats to natural resources and proactively defending the resources, too. Nobody likes groups that are only against things. And frankly, if you don’t have a positive vision, it’s really hard to get people with you.”

Special Report

Read Carolina Public Press’ ongoing special-report coverage of water quality in and around the French Broad River here.

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Katie Bailey is a contributing reporter and photographer with Carolina Public Press. Contact her at bkbailey@live.unc.edu.

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