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Professor Pens Environmental History of Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains

022703mitchell_dl.jpgBy Jane Nicholson

BOONE–Environmental history is almost always a story of decline, says Appalachian State University history professor Timothy Silver.

“Historians usually write about things going from bad to worse,” he says. “I don’t know that it gets us anywhere simply to bemoan the sad state of the environment. We need to think about what we can do to move things in a positive direction.”Silver does just that in his new book “Mount Mitchell & the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America.” The book is published by The University of North Carolina Press (uncpress.unc.edu).

Environmental history grew out of the environmental movement of the 1970s, Silver says. He defines environmental history as the study of people and nature, and their influence on each other.

For Silver, the Black Mountains are a laboratory for exploring the impact of these relationships over time: from the Indians who lived and hunted in the region, to early European explorers who sought riches in the form of gold, deer hides and exotic plants, to politicians and scientists who debate the cause of the area’s deforestation.

“That’s what I am really interested in professionally,” he said. “The book is about how people and nature have changed that region over time. People didn’t always anticipate what nature was going to do. Nature has a life of its own – more so than we are willing to admit at times.”

Mount Mitchell has been a cultural icon for North Carolina ever since the state made it part of the first state park in 1915. “It became a place for tourism and experimentation in forestry and conservation after the lumber companies destroyed the area,” Silver said. “It was designed to be a demonstration forest to show North Carolinians the benefits of conservation and sustainable forestry.”

As a tourist Mecca in the 1950s, the area experienced overcrowding. Most recently it has become a symbol of environmental degradation, Silver said.

“It’s been a lot of different things to a lot of different people over time,” Silver said. “That’s what I have tried to capture (in the book).”

Silver weaves into his book sections from a journal he kept while hiking in the area.

Silver also details the controversy regarding Elisah Mitchell and Thomas Clingman, who each claimed to be the first to measure the highest peak in the Eastern United States, and how death, politics and the court of public opinion ultimately led to the mountain’s naming.

But it’s the debate over air pollution’s role in the forest’s decline that Silver thinks is the latest threat to the mountain.

“There are two camps–one which sees air pollution as the underlying cause of forest decline and another which tends to emphasize insect infestations, weather, and the natural decline of old growth forests—that have created a political argument. And the upshot of all this is that it has allowed the government to stall as politicians choose which scientists they want to believe.”

While the debate continues, Silver says, the mountain forests continue to decline. He thinks it’s time to embrace a plan for managing the area. He advocates abandoning the notion of preserving pristine wilderness on Mount Mitchell. Instead we should create an environment in which people and nature can co-exist on equal terms.

Silver supports environmental writer Michael Pollan’s concept of a “working garden” in which people tend, manage and even change an area, but only after careful consideration of the ecological consequences. “Thinking of the region as a garden instead of a despoiled or rehabilitated wilderness allows us to see the landscape for what it is: a place made more interesting and intriguing by people,” he writes.

Such a planned approach might include reforestation or reintroduction of area predators, such as the wolf or mountain lion, he said.

“People can be agents of positive change in the region,” he says. “We’ve got to do something about the air pollution. It’s time to do something about it, for the vegetation and for human lives. If we could hold up our end, nature might well work with us to bring the forests back.”

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