Today we were supposed to host the Friends of DuPont Forest Annual Meeting and honor the heroes who fought so hard to save DuPont Forest twenty years ago. Instead the Forest is closed and we are staying home to protect each other in an unprecedented health crisis. I miss DuPont fiercely these days and I can’t wait to go back. I am more thankful than ever Friends of the Falls saved the Forest for all of us, and we will all be back to enjoying it when all of us can safely be there.
Some of you have heard this story before, but it is worth repeating. Today (April 6th), on the anniversary of the very first meeting to save DuPont Forest from development, we honor those brave folks who had a role in saving our Forest by telling their story once more.
Before DuPont Forest was a State Forest, the property was owned by the DuPont Corporation. The company operated an X-Ray film plant for decades and the property had long been a de-facto park for the employees, families and friends. You can still see the footprint of the plant in what is now known as the donut hole in the Forest.
In the mid 1990’s, the organization now called Conserving Carolina, worked with the State to purchase 7700 acres surrounding the plant. The remaining plant site and the waterfall tract in the center of the Forest was sold to Sterling Diagnostic Imaging.
In 1999, Sterling sold the plant to a company called Agfa and announced it would sell the waterfall tract in a one shot closed bid sale. The Conservation Fund, bidding on behalf of the state, offered $5.5 million. They were outbid by developer Jim Anthony, known for his Cliffs golfing communities in the upstate and mountains of the Carolinas. Anthony paid $6.3 million and had plans to build at least 100 vacation homes for his Cliff golfing community. The deal did not sit well with some residents.
After the sale, true DuPont heros – Jeff Jennings, Aleen Steinberg, Gwen Hill, Doug Coggins, Dick Thompson, Woody and Jo Jo Keen, Bill and Shirl Thomas, Ken Shelton, Lee and Lynn Kitts and Bill Stricker formed the core group of advocates for public ownership and launched Friends of the Falls in the Spring of 2000.
Friends of the Falls argued fiercely that we were constitutionally bound to protect the waterfalls in DuPont. It wasn’t easy. This was before social media and the Internet was still pretty new. The group began writing letters to newspapers, speaking out in news articles, getting the word out via email, tv, any which way they could. It was one of the first times email was used in North Carolina to spur widespread support for an environmental issue. They held public meetings in Cedar Mountain, Brevard, Hendersonville, Asheville and Travelers Rest. Woody Keen, a local trail builder and mountain biker, produced a 30 second tv ad that ran in Brevard, Asheville, Hendersonville, Charlotte, Winston Salem and Raleigh.
Sam Neill – who was running for Congress at the time – and Chuck McGrady came up with a compromise to present to the Governor and other top State leaders. They proposed for the State to purchase 440 acres surrounding the waterfalls while letting Anthony continue with his development on the remaining acreage. So, at Neill went to Raleigh armed with maps of the property and photographs of the waterfalls prepared to make his case in an April 2000 meeting of North Carolina’s Council of State.
It was an election year, and many of the politicians from the Piedmont and Eastern North Carolina were looking for an issue that would connect with voters in the mountains. Still, Friends of the Falls members were astonished when Gov. Jim Hunt and other top elected leaders began speaking forcefully in favor of seizing the entire property.
Supporters of Anthony and property rights advocates mounted their own campaign against the State seizing the land. They held a rally of their own on the courthouse square in Brevard, complete with pictures of Neill and McGrady’s faces on the bodies of skunks. The Transylvania County Board of Commissioners opposed the state seizing the land and many other local politicians either opposed or were silent on the issue.
The property rights advocates argued that Transylvania County would lose an estimated $500,000 a year in property taxes without the development. To be fair, this was and is a real concern, as 40% of Transylvania county is public land.
Friends of the Falls argued that the estimated tourism dollars DuPont State Forest would attract would more than make up for the loss in property taxes. Turns out they were right.
The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that public lands bring in $1.3 billion in state and local tax revenue. In WNC, visitors spend $83.3 million dollars a year while residents spend $31.7 million dollars a year on outdoor recreation.
State negotiations with Anthony continued over the summer in 2000. At one point, Anthony offered a proposal to allow the public to view three of the waterfalls from 9am to 5pm daily with certain restrictions. Trust was not high and State attorneys and Friends of the Falls felt that agreements with him held no guarantees. Friends of the Falls kept up the public pressure and
On October 23 the Council of State voted unanimously to use the state’s power of eminent domain to make the property state land. This was unprecedented and a true victory for that concerned group of citizens determined to save the waterfalls for future generations.
Volunteer trail crews got busy putting up temporary trail markers and taking down survey ribbons for the gates to open to the public on December 18, 2000.
In a letter to Mr. Woody Keen Governor Hunt wrote, “One day, many years from now, your children’s grandchildren will walk the trails of DuPont Forest….They will likely never know that, years ago, because of your efforts and our voice, they won the right to stand there. But you and I will always know and the legacy of DuPont Forest will live on forever.”
Since the gates opened in 2000, Friends of DuPont volunteers have helped build a world-class trail system, putting in thousands of volunteer hours to maintain the trails. The Trash Bash volunteers have cleared countless bags of trash from the Forest. Friends of DuPont Forest has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in trail projects and infrastructure, including the new Hooker Falls bathrooms, the Hooker Falls bridge, the stairs to Triple Falls, improvements to Ridgeline, the Visitor Center and so much more.
Each year Friends of DuPont hosts educational hikes and lectures to educate members and the public about the history of DuPont Forest and its unique ecosystem. We also host the annual DuPont Forest Festival on National Public Lands day to celebrate the beauty, wildness, and adventure found in DuPont.
Friends of DuPont Forest continues to be a voice for the Forest, building on the legacy laid by the Friends of the Falls and everyone who came together to make this Forest a reality.