How Gorges was Saved

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Lead photo by Brenda J. Wiley

20 years ago, Gorges became a state park rather of a hydroelectric dam, thanks to the efforts of one particular inspiring leader. Right now, it is nonetheless one particular of the most wonderful and finest-kept secrets in Southern Appalachia.

Bill Thomas, taking in the views at Gorges State Park, believed about what this land could have been— a vast zone of hydroelectric projects, its well-known waterfalls funneled via pipes, its wild rivers cooped up in basins developed to flush like toilets to make surges of energy.

He believed about what it has been rather for the previous 20 years—a safely preserved wonderland of deep ravines, plunging rivers and uncommon plants.

And following some prodding, Thomas acknowledged the consensus of persons who know the history of this house — that he, possibly additional than any single individual, led it away from the initial fate and toward the second.

“I do assume, properly, I’ve accomplished one particular fantastic factor in my life,” he stated.

In reality, Thomas, 91, a retired chemical engineer, produced an unpaid, late-life profession of undertaking fantastic factors for the atmosphere, applying his passion for the outdoors and brilliant, Princeton-educated intellect to a series of causes, such as the blocking of a luxury subdivision planned for the heart of DuPont State Recreational Forest.

He has served as chairman of the North Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club and helped identified and/or lead a mile-extended list of other environmental organizations. He has received the chapter’s highest honor for extended and outstanding service, the Joseph LeConte Award, and has been inducted into the Order of the Lengthy Leaf Pine for his contributions to the state of North Carolina.

 The celebration of the park’s 20th anniversary at the annual Beautiful Gorges Colors occasion this coming October is the great time to celebrate Thomas’ legacy. But do additional than lift a glass to Thomas, stated Molly Diggins, Sierra’s longtime state director. View him as proof that one particular person can make a massive distinction for the atmosphere. Hold him up as an inspiration and stick to his instance.

“He represents the finest of what one particular tireless, committed person can achieve to preserve and shield outstanding land and water sources for the advantage of the all-natural planet and the public,” Diggins stated.

How Gorges Became a Park

To appreciate what Thomas did for Gorges State Park, assume of it not as a stand-alone house but as aspect of the bigger Lake Jocassee watershed. Also recognized as Jocassee Gorges, it is a freak of climatological and geologic nature that extends across the North Carolina-South Carolina line southwest of Asheville and has been named by National Geographic as one particular of fifty “World’s Final Fantastic Areas.”

The ancient crash of tectonic plates that designed the Appalachian Mountains pushed up the Blue Wall on the southeast edge of the mountains and formed the bones of the lake’s basin and the maze of gorges above it. The 2000-foot wall catches moisture from clouds drifting up from the Gulf of Mexico, producing an annual typical of 91 inches of rain (and a whopping 136 inches in 2018) that feeds 4 landmark rivers, the Thompson, Toxaway, Horsepasture and Whitewater. Their location-worthy cascades contain Whitewater, Rainbow, Turtleback and Windy falls.

The Wall also catches windblown spores from ferns and mosses. At least that is one particular theory for the selection of uncommon and endangered species that can be identified right here and nowhere else on Earth. The endangered Oconee Bell wildflower, nearly unknown in the wild outdoors of this watershed, grows abundantly inside it.    

Even though the ecological and recreational worth of these gorges appears apparent now, it was after appreciated only by a couple of intrepid scientists and hikers. In the 1980s, its prospective was all about hydroelectric energy.

Duke Power, which owned about 60,000 acres in the area, had penciled in plans for various pump storage plants—designed to make surges of electricity—on the Jocassee Gorges’ creeks and rivers. But the initial active threat to the Jocassee Gorges came on one particular of the couple of significant tracts in the basin that Duke didn’t personal, 923 acres along the Horsepasture controlled by a firm referred to as Carrasan. It announced its plans to create a hydroelectric plant on the river in a tiny legal ad that ran in Brevard’s Transylvania Occasions newspaper on March five, 1984. This caught the eye of the ever-attentive Thomas, which is one particular location to mark the start out of his activism.

91-year-old Bill Thomas strolls via Gorges State Park, which he helped to permanently shield 20 years ago.

But his awakening really started a couple of years earlier when he met his second wife, Shirl, who also deserves a Gorges anniversary toast. At the time, Bill Thomas was functioning at the DuPont plant close to Brevard. He was a lifelong birder and hiker, but also a lifelong Republican, a Sierra Club member uncomfortable with its advocacy.

“After meeting Shirl,” he stated, “I got retreaded.”

When they saw the ad that threatened one particular of their preferred hiking spots, they set about researching the atmosphere of the Jocassee Gorges and the approval approach for Carrasan’s project. Meetings and telephone calls consumed their evenings. Bill Thomas place the Xerox machine in his DuPont workplace into overdrive pumping out promotional literature.

He and Shirl, he stated, have been also naive to know that such environmental crusades commonly advance at glacial speed. This one particular moved like an avalanche. With a couple of early allies, they formed a group referred to as Mates of the Horsepasture River, “which we realized later could type a neat acronym, FROTH,” Bill Thomas wrote in a 2015 book he published on the work, Dam it, No!! Potent supporters speedily jumped on board, such as Mike Leonard, then a young lawyer and now the chairman of the nationwide Land Conservation Fund. And a mere two ½ years following the founding of FROTH, it accomplished its ultimate objective — federal designation of the Horsepasture as a Wild and Scenic River, signed into law in October 1986 by President Ronald Reagan.

“I assume the most significant higher I ever had in my life was when the Horsepasture got protected,” he stated.

There’s an old saying that activists are divided amongst tree shakers— the inspirational, visionary varieties, and jelly makers—who do the sustained, detailed function. Thomas is each.

 “Bill was the superstar,” Leonard stated. “Bill was really crucial to major the charge and creating public help.”

He also stuck to it via the approach of acquiring and defending the watershed — such as additional than 7,000 acres that became Gorges State Park — even even though it proceeded at the additional common pace of environmental action. Quite gradually.

He retired from DuPont in 1989 to start out a stint as statewide Sierra Club chairperson. He traveled to Washington D.C. to persuade federal lawmakers to obtain crucial portions of the old Carrasan house, now aspect of the Nantahala National Forest. He fought to block a powerline that ended up becoming constructed via the park. “We got our heads beat down on that one particular,” he stated. And following Duke let it be recognized it was prepared to sell its land in the mid 1990s, Thomas was Sierra’s point individual on the creation of the park, placing him in the thick of the negotiations with hunters who at one particular point threatened to withdraw help for the acquisition. He played a critical part in “elevating this situation amongst Sierra members,” stated Diggins, which gave her the backing to lobby state lawmakers. And he did a fair quantity of lobbying himself, searching for not only that the land be bought but that most of it be designated as a state park.

“That was a higher bar,” Diggins stated. “The state did not have a history of land acquisition for state parks or all-natural conservation.”

A single of his lobbying tools was a Jocassee Gorges hiking guide that Steve Pagano, park superintendent in the course of its initial 19 years, stated may nonetheless be the finest one particular published. Its maps and pictures have been supplemented with detailed passages on history, ecology and geology. No matter what situation he took on, Diggins stated, he seemed to know every single ecological asset, every single threat, every single political and bureaucratic crucial that required turning. 

His commitment to the park continued extended following its formation. Thomas has been a member of park’s advisory committee because its founding. He extended pushed for a Mates of Gorges State Park and served on it for various years following its creation practically a decade ago.

 “I’d place him on best of the list of (volunteers) creating the park come about and creating it function,” stated Superintendent Pagano.

Thomas knows his generation of activists is passing. He has dialed back on some of his commitments. He and Shirl are no longer the super-match, avid hikers that smile from the banks of the Horsepasture in the pictures of Dam it. Thomas lamented in an e mail that he could deliver only a quick list of contacts for former FROTH members. “All the other people are gone.”

But he has been blessed with wellness that other people may look as a karmic reward for his fantastic function but that he views as merely a pleasant mystery. He and Shirl nonetheless stroll practically every single day in the neighborhood of tree huggers close to Brevard exactly where they settled in 1998. He nonetheless performs on its trail-creating crew. He nonetheless organizes its nature applications and sends out e mail blasts alerting residents to sightings of black bears and hummingbirds. When his pals describe his mental sharpness, they are not grading on the usual nonagenarian curve. 

“Bill is additional intellectually engaged on a wider selection of subjects than any one I’ve ever met,” stated his old pal and neighbor, Gus Napier. “He’s interested in anything!”

I observed firsthand his acuity and passion for nature, on a trip to the Gorges with Thomas and park ranger Neal Wilcox.  As we drove deep into the backcountry in a 4-wheel drive pickup, Thomas let out spontaneous exclamations of enthusiasm. “Fantastic!” is a Thomas preferred. He explained how geology and erosion had designed the vertiginous slopes of the gorges that Wilcox navigated. He identified the species of every single bird that referred to as and of the ground-hugging halberd violets and midstory silverbell trees.

Dressed in khakis and properly broken-in leather hiking boots, he handled a quick hike to Bearwallow Creek with ease, bushwhacking via briars and up and down muddy embankments. Wilcox commented on this, Thomas’ fitness, but his words could also apply to Thomas’ function for the all-natural planet, the instance he has set for younger environmentalists.

“Bill, you are my hero,” Wilcox stated. “I want to be you when I develop up.” 

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