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In western North Carolina, as in much of the Appalachian South, few issues have been more hotly contested than regulation and usage of public lands. The region’s residents have repeatedly battled among themselves and with federal, state, and local governments concerning management of public lands. This contentious history includes well-documented disputes involving the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and a host of less familiar struggles. Among the most important of these over the past three decades has been the continuing debate on regulations concerning the National Forests.

“Environmentalism: Forests and Communities in Western North Carolina,” a component of the SOHP’s “Listening for a Change” research initiative, examines the history of land usage in western North Carolina, particularly Ashe, Buncombe, Mitchell, and Yancey counties. Coordinated by Kathy Newfont, the oral history series explores the diverse perspectives of residents who have relied on local forests both for livelihood and recreation, and documents how changed patterns of forest usage have transformed the region’s landscape in the past thirty years. Series narratives also chronicle the struggles by mountain communities to balance the economic benefits of the timber and tourism industries against such traditional priorities as hunting and fishing.

Responses to these conflicts have taken many forms. Since the mid-1980s, rural residents of western North Carolina have joined together in organizations like the Western North Carolina Alliance and have campaigned successfully against forest clear-cutting. These campaigns are distinguished by the fact that that they have united longtime residents viewing the forests as “commons” areas for hunting, fishing, berrying, and herb gathering, with newcomers to the region who bring with them the more typical environmentalist view of land as wilderness that is affords hiking, kayaking, camping, and other minimally-invasive recreational uses. Interviews with these activists illuminate the important contrasts between the commons approach and the vision that some wilderness preservationists hold for pristine landscapes untouched by human hands.