Today I’m headed up to Appalachian State University (ASU) nestled near North Carolina’s border with Virginia on the western slopes of its namesake range.
Durham, where I live, lies in the foothills of the Appalachians which gives way to the Eastern Coastal Plain just east of Raleigh. Whoever wrote on Wikipedia that Durham is flat doesn’t walk much.
In just a quarter of our two and a half mile walks each morning, we climb up and down the equivalent of nearly a 15 story building. I kid my friends down in Raleigh that based on what the legislature is doing there, Durham will be beachfront in a couple of hundred years (smile.)
Invariably, I gravitate to Southern Rock during this twice yearly three hour drive (with stops) up and over the Eastern Continental Divide to ASU where rivers run west toward the Mississippi.
Knowing I am the only son of an only son descending from generations of Idaho ranchers with roots back to before it became a territory may hint at the country music in my genes.
But the truly common thread through my seemingly eclectic taste in music is “roots” music.
On arrival, I’ll be speaking for two hours about strategic thinking and insight to seniors completing a “capstone” course in the ASU business school, with majors evenly divided into accounting, management, marketing and hospitality.
Road construction will prevent a jog in my route along a portion of the Pisgah National Forest set aside in 1912 three years before it was given that name and just two years after a horrible calamity ignited public opinion.
When I arrived here in 1989, less than 30% of its trees dated to that time because industrialists had logged it so heavily before the 1891 act creating forest preserves was finally adjusted to allow set asides in the east.
By then they were forests in name only on lands nobody wanted. In photographs taken two decades later to document construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the devastation is still apparent.
Forestry education first took root further south along these ranges in North Carolina, but conservation didn’t.
President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who got his start working on the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, made Conservation a national overarching strategy.
But strategic preservation of forests is an idea that took shape in 1876, a year before the dawn of the “Gilded Age” and four years after Yellowstone was created as the first national park during a fifty year period dating from the Civil War when Republicans were in control.
Things weren’t gilded for 9-in-10 Americans getting by on less than $1,200 a year and most had a sense that deforestation beyond clearings required to make a home didn’t make sense.
John Muir echoed this sentiment that year with one of his first op-ed newspaper essays entitled “God’s First Temples: How Shall We Preserve Our Forests” but scientists were also worried and sounded alarms to Congress based on a paper by Dr. Franklin Hough.
“On the Duty of Governments in the Preservation of Forests,” outlined a case for government action based on a study of the fate of countries that ignored the overuse of forests.
Three years later, a month after dispatch riders reached my ancestor’s Idaho settlement and telegraphed word of Custer’s Last Stand, Congress finally responded.
Hough was embedded as a government researcher where he would conduct five more years of forest and timbering analysis. It would take another another ten years before the forest preserve act would be enacted.
President Benjamin Harrison, the great-grandson of one of the signers to the Declaration of Independence, showed his independence from powerful special interests in his party by setting aside the first 12 million acres of national forest, including a portion of Yellowstone Park.
The same year, John Muir and some friends formed the Sierra Club, modeled after the Appalachian Mountain Club which in 1876 had been formed in the northern reaches of the range I will cross today by vacationers seeking to preserve forests.
The time of Harrison’s bold move was also when Gifford Pinchot went to work for a branch of the Vanderbilt's at their vacation estate in the North Carolina mountains tasked with rehabilitating deforested land following earlier advice from Fredrick Law Olmstead.
Teddy Roosevelt was serving as Governor but a naturalist by inclination he had already cut his teeth on conservation as a New York State Assembly member during the mid-1880s debating the Adirondacks as a forest preserve.
Today’s trip across the Blue Ridge is a warm-up for a cross-country trip I will soon take with Mugs, my English Bulldog. The route each year is different, with one segment always in common.
After collecting my grandsons and daughter we all head up into the Bitterroot Mountains, an iconic northern Idaho range that suddenly cuts east behind our ancestral ranchland to touch the Tetons.
Regardless of where we cut through these forests, I can’t help but think about the fact that 104 years ago next month, it would have been a scene similar to the aftermath of an Atomic bomb blast.
In the aftermath, the image shown in this essay was taken along Idaho’s St. Joe River, depicting the devastation across the state’s panhandle leading to the destruction of several towns and killing nearly 90 people.
Led by a Republican Idaho senator, Congress had been trying to decapitate the fledgling National Forest Service by starving it of funding.
This forced Rangers to pay for their own supplies including firefighters out of their own paychecks. Adding insult, special interests and their Republican allies blamed these public servants for the devastation, a tactic often deployed today when funding cuts results in dysfunction.
As a final insult they even stiffed those who were grievously injured but not killed their medical costs and then denied a proper burial for the nearly 90 who died.
A recent book about the event is The Big Burn, written by journalist Timothy Egan, but it’s more than a riveting account of the massive fire. (For any non-readers who made it this far or those who want to see images click here for a documentary.)
Egan’s book weaves accounts of the event with its impact on the American public and a turning point in public policy. As he documents, “conservation was no longer an abstract debate.”
Outraged, Americans turned against the Republican Party and its special interest wing, many leaving for the Democratic Party which found its voice for social justice.
The forest I see carpeting the Bitterroots today began to come back three decades later later after persistent nurturing and experimentation by the Forest Service.
But the impact was still clearly visible in my early years.
Forest products today are turning more and more to commercially grown forests, leaving National Forests for recreation and tourism.
But urban and roadside forests which are even more crucial to tourism, especially in states such as North Carolina, are now under threat of desecration from a different set of special interests
These include insatiable clear-cutting-enabled Billboard companies and developers who are too lazy too lazy to get off their mechanized assets to bother with sustainability.
It isn’t clear when enough will be enough and the American public will rise up again.