Stand Up That Mountain: The Battle to Save One Small Community in the Wilderness along the Appalachian Trail
Jay Erskine Leutze | Simon & Schuster, 2012
Stand Up That Mountain, written by Jay Leutze, is about the legal battle to stop a gravel mine, known as the Putnam Mine, from leveling a mountain near the Roan Highlands of Western North Carolina. This is a local story featuring local people, tied to the national interest through proximity to a National Park—the Appalachian National Scenic Trail—and through the potential to be a precedent-setting legal battle regarding the authority (or lack thereof) of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources to rescind an issued permit. Leutze, a nearby landowner, organizes a group of concerned citizens—colorful Appalachian characters who add a great degree of depth to the otherwise formal legal story—who then catch the attention of the conservation community and as a group work together tirelessly against (and sometimes with) governmental and industry agencies to present their grievance and to ultimately shut down and prevent the destruction of Belview Mountain. The book is largely a story of social organizing, raising awareness, and then, proceeding through the extended and maddening court systems to bring the matter to rest.
I typically come to a book with some level of familiarity or connection to the subject matter and this story was no exception. A full-time outdoor freelance photographer, the Roan Highlands (and the Southern Appalachians in general) have been the backdrop to my recent career, directly responsible for much of my success and much of my joy. I’ve camped, hiked, and photographed the Roan Highlands repeatedly every year without fail and hope to continue this tradition unbroken into the unforeseeable future. The Roan Highlands are truly an amazing place and I can’t imagine the disappointment I would experience if an eye-sore such as an open-pit gravel mine were the lasting impression I got after hiking the beautiful Southern Appalachian balds. It would be a direct indictment on our inability as people (me included) to place any value on experiences apart from the economic, in my humble opinion. So, I had a connection to this story based on place. I also had a connection as a reader to Jay Leutze, the author, as I too was (or better worded, am presently) taking on the non-traditional experiment of being mobile and outdoors while I’m able-bodied, instead of waiting until retirement. I’ve sacrificed security and predictability for adventure and mobility, giving up a lot along the way. On the other hand, I also come from a building background having spent a number of years heavily involved within the construction industry. In fact, I was part of the team that built an addition and renovation to the nearby Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine, North Carolina shortly after this case was wrapped up. On that project we dug deep holes into structurally unsound mine tailings and filled those holes back with lots of gravel (tons of gravel to be more accurate). That gravel served as the foundation for the new hospital. So, I’ve seen both sides of this story and to some extent, I understand both on different merits.
The case this book references was ultimately argued based upon failure of the mine owner to provide proper notice to adjoining landowners, thus invalidating the permit granted by the State of North Carolina. Secondary, to that argument was the siting of the mine with relation to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and the destruction there forth of the viewshed, quiet, and solitude that characterize the experience of thru-hiking the Trail. It was a story with tenacity, perseverance, and will power from Leutze and his Dog Town posse of Appalachian Mountain folks. It was also a story of environmental organizations such as Southern Environmental Law Center and their central role in helping to protect key natural resources in a world hell-bent on using up and capitalizing every last drop of nature with no care for long-term or environmental impacts, especially those without economic valuations. It was an important story and a rare win for the small guys. I’m glad I read the book.
From a reading standpoint, this was not a real page-turner for me though. As I mentioned before, this was not a book about the natural history of Roan Mountain but a book about the legal process, the legal parties, and the drawn out timeline of legal battles, with Roan Mountain serving as the voiceless backdrop. The author does a wonderful job of communicating the exhausting process of appeals courts and the seesaw of judge’s and their verdicts. However, that makes the book somewhat exhausting for the reader as well! If you’re not naturally enthralled with the legal system and it’s proceedings, you might find the plethora of agencies, characters, judges, etc. to be both difficult to follow and tiring in general. On the other hand, it was an honest story and an honest read, and Leutze does good to weave into the formal legal battle moments of reprieve where we get to know the folks involved and the landscape that they’re fighting to save. It took me a year or more to finish this title as I picked it up and put it down and then picked it up again. But it was worth it. Stand Up That Mountain was a good read and a read that I would still recommend to others with an interest in the Roan Highlands and/or in conservation battles. Anyone who enjoys this area to this present day would be well served to understand the efforts of those before to preserve the experience that we are blessed with today in these beautiful southern mountains.
Here are a couple of quotes that I dog-eared while reading as they stuck out to me personally:
“I knew time would slow my ability to scramble up mountains and wade swift streams. Surely I would be able to secure employment in my middle years, after I had fulfilled my need to climb and swim and dive and cast to trout. I couldn’t find anyone else making the same gamble, any fellow experimenters inverting the establishment progression from school to marriage to work to retirement, but it seemed perfectly reasonable to me when faced with the alternative, a job behind a desk, riding in airplanes in a suit and a tie” (page 85)
“Public hearings never yield much in the way of impediments, rarely do they yield anything at all, save for the feel-good misunderstanding that one is being heard” (page 99)
“I was up in the mountains, Jay, this was ten years ago, and I went to church on Sunday. And the preacher preached the entire sermon on Sugar Top, on greed and hubris. He called that condominium an abomination and an affront to God’s intricate handiwork in crafting these mountains. And then he said something I’m reminded of every time I see that building. He said that condominium was like a finger stuck in the eye of the Lord. …’That rock crusher would be the whole fist’, I said. ‘Like a fist shoved in the gut of the Lord’” (page 211)
“In late February the ice continues to accrue in the high elevations, and the snows drift onto the eastern and southern sides of the balds, driven off the tops by the lethal winds from the north and northwest. The weak winter sun never climbs high enough to chase the dark from the valleys, and the hollers store cold air like dammed creeks hold water, and the ground shows no sign of living, of ever greening again. But by early March, the odd day reminds you of the southerly nature of the place. An icy morning turns into a warm afternoon on the ridges. The sun feels hot on the face. When the wind swings from the south, you can smell the piney woods of Georgia, the red clay of Alabama. The seeps and drainages are the first to green up, then the carpet of wildflowers seems to weave itself outward toward the ridges, then upward toward the summits. There comes a day when the fringed phacelia blankets the haggard ground like a jeweled throw, the little white parasols nodding in breezes. Trout lilies appear overnight, their speckled leaves firm and mottled with bronze and green, and it is hard to believe they make no noise so audacious is their arrival” (page 216-17)
“I tried to imagine three thousand people convening in the mountains for anything in 1931. … This meeting was part of the process to select a site suitable for the first national park in the East. Highlands of Roan, I knew, finished the pageant as runner-up to the nearby Great Smokies. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now the nation’s most visited national park, hosting double the annual visitors that make it to the Grand Canyon in a typical year” (page 233)
“It (The Great Smoky Mountains National Park) is now routinely celebrated as the most polluted park in the entire country. Nitrous oxide levels at Clingmans Dome sometimes exceed readings in downtown Los Angeles” (page 303)
“The original vision of the founders, the very idea of a wilderness walk in the woods so near to the busy cities of the eastern seaboard, was imperiled as the lands the Trail traversed were ‘discovered’ by resort developers. Big land companies had figured it out: by following the route of the Appalachian Trail, or the Blue Ridge Parkway, or by hugging the boundaries of Yellowstone, they could parlay the goodwill of these national treasures into marketing gold. The very things that made the Trail experience special—the views, the quiet remove from civilization—were suddenly prized in a second-home real estate market that placed a premium on those values” (page 282)
“Northbound hikers swept up in two days of magnificent bald walks would leave the Roan with a stunning and lasting reminder that even the most wondrous places are accorded little value in this world we live in. That the idea of a remove from civilization, even in the remotest corners of the land, is so much folly” (page 313)
“To fish for trout is to engage in a purposeful removal from the outside world. It is a statement I make to myself that there is still good left in us, for we have left some places alone, some places where a man can fish in peace. Not many, but some” (page 321)
“A prevailing notion across the land was now that industry and industry allies carefully placed at the regulatory agencies should take pride in getting away with it. There seemed to be a schoolyard belief that because one side of the political divide has made it a point to protect the land and water of the commons, the other side ought to make it a point to exploit, abuse, and even despise the commons. And the glee over their many “victories” was repulsive to me” (page 373)