By Paula Musto
Earth Day, an annual event rooted in promoting environmental awareness and sustainability policies throughout the world, will be celebrated on Thursday, April 22. While the 51st anniversary of this global event takes place during a time of deepening concern about the health of our planet and its people, a sense of optimism abounds.
Environmentalists point to a series of recent initiatives that have placed sustainability high on the national agenda. Federal agencies are reinstating environmental standards aimed at protecting our air and water supply. Fossil fuel activities on public lands have been halted. The US has rejoined the landmark Paris Agreement, the international effort to address climate change, and on Earth Day 2021 President Joe Biden will convene a global summit on the subject.
The Earth Day mantra, however, is Think Globally, Act Locally. In that vein, here is a look at what some Asheville environmental activists are celebrating.
Trees. The diminishment of the city’s canopy may finally be reversed, says Chelsea Rath, community engagement coordinator for Asheville GreenWorks, a volunteer-based nonprofit dedicated to environmental conservation projects. Thanks to a newly enacted Tree Canopy Protection Ordinance, property owners and developers are discouraged from cutting down trees. Enacted last fall, the new regulations require that developers replace removed trees with new ones or pay a fee for lost canopy.
Between 2008 and 2018, nearly 900 acres of trees were lost in Asheville neighborhoods, an area larger than New York City’s Central Park. Rath is hopeful the city will continue proactive, tree-friendly initiatives, including hiring an urban forester. Healthy, strong trees not only absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, thereby reducing the effects of climate change, but also play an important role in capturing rainwater and lessening the risk of floods and landslides.
Each year, Asheville GreenWorks sponsors a Spring Tree Give-Away. Last April, the organization gave away nearly 700 trees and provided training on planting and caring for the trees. Visit AshevilleGreenWorks.org for more information.
Greenways. After a year of social distancing and limits on indoor activities, outside areas are taking on even greater importance. Happily, many more miles of greenways across Buncombe County are in the works. Greenways, long pathways used for recreation and pedestrian or bicycle traffic, are an environmentally friendly way to connect people and places.
“With all the new development in the Asheville area, preservation of open space for public use and enjoyment is essential—greenways help make our community healthier and happier,” says Allison Glackin, president of Connect Buncombe, a nonprofit that advocates and educates on behalf of greenways.
Just in time for Earth Day, the French Broad River East Greenway across from the River Arts District will open in April, extending the greenway network in Buncombe to approximately 14 miles. Several additional projects are in the works, including the following: an area along the west bank of the French Broad River; the Woodfin Greenway/Blueway project; the Reems Creek Greenway; the Enka Heritage Trail; the Nasty Branch Greenway; and a stretch along the Swannanoa River.
There is momentum for even more greenways in the future, Glackin says, with more than 100 miles of proposed construction on the drawing board.
Wildlife. It’s all about the animals for Winslow Umberger, a volunteer with Appalachian Wildlife Rescue whose mission is to rehabilitate injured and orphaned animals and release them back into the wild. Umberger is encouraged by a greater human awareness of the need to support wild animals and how each of us, as individuals, can make a difference. Importantly, this includes leaving backyards wild.
“Heavily landscaped areas may be aesthetically pleasing, but they are dead to wildlife,” Umberger says, urging homeowners to leave sections of their yard wild for small mammals and birds to feed and hide from predators. During fall months, she recommends not bagging leaves, instead leaving them on the ground to support the soil and provide a refuge for wild critters.
“The idea of beautifully manicured lawns and spaces came about in the Victorian Age when it was felt that nature should be tamed,” she says. “But the friendliest thing people can do for our Earth in the 21st century is to think about our yards differently by providing habitats for wildlife.”
Many important environmental events have happened on Earth Day since 1970—from international workshops to neighborhood clean-ups. In recent years, Earth Day has been extended into Earth Month with activities throughout April.
In Asheville, WNC for the Planet, a collective comprised of local environmental organizations, coordinates monthlong educational and recreational activities, many of which will be virtual this year due to the pandemic. Visit WNCforthePlanet.org for more information.
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Rescue whose mission is to save injured and orphaned wildlife. To learn more about native wildlife and support animal rescue, read Wild & Furry Animals of the Southern Appalachian Mountains by local author Lee James Pantas. A $5 donation to Appalachian Wildlife Rescue will be made for each book purchased via link bit.ly/3pzb1rT.