Revealing the Common Thread: Blue Ridge Commons

Date: June 11, 2012

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By Brian Sewell
Last year, Western North Carolina recognized the 100-year anniversary of the Weeks Act, the law that gave the U.S. Forest Service the ability to purchase private land in the Eastern United States to be managed as National Forests. Historian Kathryn Newfont’s new book, Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in North Carolina, caps that centennial celebration by tracing the evolution of the Forest Service since the passage of the Weeks Act and exploring the history of Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, two of the earliest eastern woodlands managed by the agency.

Astounding in its breadth of research, Blue Ridge Commons encapsulates the past century from the early days of the Forest Service’s eastern expansion to the rise of clearcutting and the emergence of the environmental movement. Exploring the notion of commons environmentalism — resources held by all and shared among a community — Newfont traces the region’s irrevocable relationship to the resources found in the forest — no matter its managers.

Recently, we spoke with the author and historian about Blue Ridge Commons and how Appalachian communities and those around the world are still standing up for the commons (see below for interview).

Author’s Corner Q&A with Kathryn Newfont

What is the distinction between commons environmentalism and wilderness environmentalism?

The commons relationship with the forest, or it could be with another set of resources — fisheries being a great example — is a harvest relationship. Wilderness is seen as ahistorical. There is this sense that people are not part of wilderness, which suggests there is not really a human history in wilderness. That’s only one definition of wilderness, but it’s one that, until recently, wilderness environmentalism was really built on.

[Wilderness environmentalism] is not going to resonate with people who have close working relationships to a landscape. For them, the woods are richly historical. Hunters typically learn to hunt when they’re very small. They go out with [their] fathers and uncles and cousins and so on. They go to places that their ancestors have gone to for a century or more. They’re inheriting this sense of history, which is very different from wilderness.

How did the regional notion of the commons change when the early national forests were established?

The coming of the national forest, in a lot of ways, enabled the persistence of the commons. In other parts of Appalachia, people treated coal company land as de facto commons. But when coal companies come in with bulldozers and plow down the commons, there’s not much people can do about it. They can’t defend the commons very effectively from corporate owners.

Most of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in North Carolina were purchased from timber companies. They had already moved out of the hands of local owners. When the lands moved into government ownership, they were under the rubric of the Forest Service, which had a harvest approach to forest resources as opposed to the Park Service.That harvest model dovetailed really nicely with the harvest tradition of commons use.

The thing that’s different is when you get to the post-World War II era with large-scale industrial development happening. That’s when you start getting big harvest equipment in the coal mines and in the timber arena. When the Forest Service starts coming in and clear-cutting or leasing to oil and gas companies for petroleum development, well at that point local people can actually exert their power as citizens, protecting lands that they ultimately own.

Can we see the commons at work today?

In this region, just think of opening day of hunting season or fishing season. Right now, if you walk up to your local produce stand, you’ll find ramps. If you go to a store that deals in medicinal plants, those are coming off the commons. A lot of times those are harvested from national forest land or land serving as de facto commons. Being aware of it helps to explain the cultural perspective that a lot of mountain residents are coming from.

Across the globe, the easiest ones to point to are all the fisheries, from the Gulf here in North America to waters off the coast of Japan. There are commons systems in lots of forests too: parts of the Amazon, and the forests of Southeast Asia. Those systems are alive in a lot of places.

My hope is that once people can understand what commons is, they’ll be able to see it in more places. If we just begin to understand that these systems exist in a lot of places, they have a lot of staying power.

Can the idea of the commons be used to exert pressure on corporations?

I’d like to think so. I think taking on the big corporate development is much more challenging than taking on the government. At some level government is supposed to be answerable to the people. Corporations don’t always recognize that same responsibility. But the notion of commons includes some attention to livelihood, to actually make some kind of living. I do think it has power in that direction.

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