Monday, June 18, 2012

An Inspiration For Scenic Preservation

In May 1997, less than three months before he would pass away, journalist and North Carolina favored son, Charles Kuralt delivered a moving speech to the nation’s scenic character preservationists.

In a way Kuralt led me to North Carolina in 1989 just as he was receiving the Bill Sharpe Award for public service to the industries involved with tourism here, coincidentally the same award given to my successor, Shelly Green, a year ago.

By the time I relocated here 23 years ago, I had already been viewing and listening to his “On The Road” segments on CBS Sunday Morning for close to a quarter of a century.

His broadcasts spanned more than 30 of my now-concluded 40 years as a community destination marketing exec charged with leveraging sense of place into economic development.  He was an inspiration and continues to be in my retirement as an activist for preservation of scenic character.

In that speech to scenic preservationists, Kuralt referenced the dramatic line of demarcation between blight and scenic character on North Carolina’s Outer Banks:

“These two environments collide at the Mobil Station at Whalebone Junction. North of the gas station, nothing but scenic discord, which depresses people. South of it, all natural harmony, which elevates people.

I think of that Mobil Station as the fulcrum upon which is balanced the worst nightmare and the best hope of all of us in this room tonight.

Two Americas meet there: the ugly one and the beautiful one. And of course, Americans of their own free will created them both.”

The outdoor billboard industry, which deployed years of persistence and copious political campaign contributions to push a bill through the legislature, a year ago yesterday, authorizing the clear cutting of thousands of acres of public roadside trees, often characterizes people such as me to the news media as “anti-billboard.”

More accurately, we’re just “pro-scenic character” and “pro-sense of place.”  It is all a question of values. Those who value stewardship, including both aesthetic and economic values, readily embrace scenic character which is held as a value by nearly 8 out of 10 North Carolinians including a majority of Republicans, Independents and Democrats.

Re-reading Kuralt’s speech during the first anniversary of that tragic give-away in the legislature made me recall a detour I took in the fall of 2010 on the return leg of a cross-country trip that included stops to visit my daughter and grandsons and my mother and sisters.

My driving companion, an English Bulldog named Mugsy, and I had left Millcreek, Washington, north of Seattle late in the afternoon thinking we’d overnight in Spokane, but we just kept driving thinking we’d stop at the next town or the next town until we found ourselves nearing Livingston, Montana just an hour or two before sunrise.

While refueling, I decided to cut down US 89 into Wyoming and across on the 67-mile Beartooth Highway -- my first time on that road --before reconnecting with I 90 east of Billings and then continuing down past the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and through the gas and oil-filled plains of Wyoming to Gillette and then across the Black Hills to Sturgis, South Dakota.

General Custer rode to his last stand to protect the gold he had discovered in the Black Hills but beginning 61 years later, the year after the Beartooth Highway opened, a huge motorcycle rally held each year has helped Sturgis and this corner of South Dakota become better known for tourism.

Back to the west of its junction with US 89, the Beartooth ultimately connects via US 20 across Yellowstone Park and the Targhee National Forest to that nook on the Idaho side of the Tetons where I was born and spent my early years.

But this would be my first traverse to the east over the actual Beartooth Highway portion of the route zigzagging back and forth along the border of Wyoming and Montana through the western portion of the Custer National Forest to Red Lodge.

Kuralt mentions the Beartooth in his speech to those scenic preservationists gathered in 1997.  Years earlier, he had identified it as the “prettiest road in America” for an essay in Family Circle magazine only to see on a later visit that someone had erected a big billboard pointing this out without a hint of the absurd irony involved.

Kuralt didn’t live long enough to see the Beartooth named as one of the first ten roads officially designated an American Scenic Byway just five years after his death.

The Beartooth Highway was constructed during the initial years of the Great Depression, about the same time the Blue Ridge Parkway was being built along the western edge of North Carolina and under which I passed on a quick trip to Boone, NC last week.

As we drove the Beartooth into a spectacular sunrise, we crested a nearly 11,000 foot pass surrounded by 20 mountain peaks over 12,000 feet.  If our Jeep had been a plane, the cabin would have been required to be pressurized. We would descend 10,582 feet by the time we reached our home again in Durham, North Carolina a few days later.

Kuralt’s speech to scenic preservationists in 1997, which was made a few months prior to his unexpected death at far too young an age, is one of hope.  He chronicles how far we’ve come in choosing the “beautiful America” over the “ugly America” and closes with inspiration for those of us who continue that pursuit:

“I am persuaded of this with all my heart, ordinary Americans want a beautiful country. We are proud of the amber waves of grain and the purple mountains majesties. And we are not powerless. We can have, we really can, the land Amadas and Barlowe had seen – the Goodliest Land Under the Cope of Heaven.”

1 comment:

Melissa J. Mills said...

We won't need to worry about clear cutting trees for billboards if we give up our rights to the "natural resource extraction industry." They'll take care of it all for us!