Man standing with his hand shielding his eyes overlooking misty mountains

Will Harlan of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine

Even after moving to coastal Carolina, a hundred miles away from the closest distribution center, I pick up a copy of Blue Ridge Outdoors whenever I return to central Virginia. The largest free outdoor lifestyle magazine in the country, “BRO” has great tips about hiking and camping, product reviews, and keeps me honest with my conservation knowledge in the southeast.

As it turns out I was wholly undereducated about recent developments in environmental erosion, something that happens more than I’d care to admit in this current administration. However, the recent infraction could possibly be the most detrimental for our national forests, especially in Appalachia. The Forest Service is proposing to eliminate public comment and scientific review from any logging project under 4,200 acres, without concern for old-growth forests or rare habitats. Furthermore, larger projects could be broken up into smaller parts so they fit under the acreage criteria, essentially allowing for practically unlimited and unregulated decimation of National Forests.

It’s amazing how indignant you can become about a proposal you had just learned of, however, it’s something to get used to in this day and age.

Appalachia’s Front Lines

What is the point of having a conservation site and podcast if not for reasons like this? I immediately reached out to the story editor, Will Harlan for comment, and graciously, he accepted.

Based on his writing, I knew that Will has deep knowledge of all things Appalachia, however, little did I know I was setting up a chat with trail running royalty, and even was the star of a documentary, “El Chivo“.

During the course of the conversation, Will explained to me much about the area that I once called home, including the difference between National Parks and National Forests, why environmental conservation shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and some surprising conservation wins in the Trump administration.

Image courtesy of Blue Ridge Outdoors

We even talked about Red Wolves, the last of their kind in existence living just miles away from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The conversation seemed dire, and we were running under the assumption that there were only 25 left in existence. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Only 14 Red Wolves currently exist. However, as much as Red Wolves are an underdog, they are also a classic success story. Through previous efforts, scientists were able to increase Red Wolf numbers by breeding them in captivity and then releasing them back into the wild and eastern North Carolina. This worked for decades, that is until things changed in 2014 when the local farmers started shooting them due to their visual similarity to coyotes. Mercifully, 20,000 acres from 5 other states has opened up nearly 20,000 acres for the Red Wolves.

National Forest: This Land Is Our Land

Will’s knowledge floored me, his positivity motivated me, and his determination inspired me. His love for the Appalachian area and the people who call it home is exactly what we need at a time like this. Below is one of my favorites to kick things off right—


“These are our lands, we own them, we pay for them, and we should have a say and how they’re managed.”

Interview with Will Harlan of Blue Ridge Outdoors

Below is the interview, and beyond that is the full transcription:

 

Full interview transcription:



DFYB
Alright, I’m here with Will Harlan. He’s the editor in chief of Blue Ridge Outdoor magazine, which is the largest free outdoor lifestyle magazine in the country. He’s the author of best-seller Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and The Fight For Cumberland Island, which is a New York Times bestseller. And he’s his subject behind a recent documentary, el Chivo, which is about his speed and endurance running in a Copper Canyon and Mexico. So recently, he’s been following a particularly distressing thread about the US Forest Service and how they’re kind of planning on removing integral parts of the, you know, National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which requires the agency to get public comment before embarking on logging or road development projects. So yeah, Will, thank you so much for joining me and for talking about this really timely and important subject.

Will Harlan
Thanks so much for inviting me thrilled to be here.

DFYB
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so let’s start off with I mean, you…you’ve written a series of articles about the proposal of allowing logging, you know, people to log with impunity in the Appalachian Mountains, which is pretty distressing, because it’s like that could take, you know, it sounded like from what you what you wrote 4,200 acres, which is like over six square miles. That could take swaths of that out in one single sweep. Is that true?

Will Harlan
Unfortunately, yes. So, here’s the big picture. You know, if you recreate in the east if you go outside to hike your bike or paddle or get outdoors, chances are you’re probably doing it and National Forest most of our public lands in the east are national forests, we have a couple of national parks we have Shenandoah of the Smokies. The Blue Ridge Parkway is technically a national park. But most of the rest of the green spaces on the map most of the rest of the places that you go to are in national forests, so they’ve become our recreation destinations, our recreation playgrounds are scenic vistas, our favorite places to swim and hike and bike, are National Forest. They’re probably the most important public lands in the east. Unfortunately, what’s been proposed is the Forest Service essentially wants to cut the public and science out of their decision-making process.

DFYB
Right, yeah, that was the one thing that really caused me pause, is not only are they pulling out the public, but they’re also pulling up any kind of scientific insight that could really help, you know, the forest sustain through their efforts.

Will Harlan

Image courtesy of Blue Ridge Outdoors

That’s right. So what they’ve essentially proposed is for any logging projects or pipeline projects or any projects in the National Forest under 4200 acres, which is nearly all of them in the east, the Forest Service would not have to notify the public at all, they would not have public comments. They wouldn’t have to tell us until the bulldozers showed up in your favorite National Forest trailhead, ready to knock down some trees or put in a pipeline. So we would know about things ahead of times ahead of time, if this rule is adopted, it’s been has been proposed by the Trump administration and the US Forest Service. There’s no congressional approval needed, but there will likely be litigation if they do, in fact, adopt this rule, because it cuts not only the public out and these are public lands, right, cuts out scientists too, the Forest Service is tremendously understaffed. I think we all recognize that. You know, our, our forest service and park service personnel are working as hard as they possibly can. They’re cash strapped, underfunded, understaffed, they don’t have the personnel to, to cover the entire 20 million acres of National Forest just in the east, so they rely a lot on outside scientists, on experts, on the public to tell them about rare species, about old growth forests, about important places in the forest to protect. So when you cut the public out when you cut the science out, that what’s left is an understaffed forest service that can’t possibly do an adequate job.

DFYB
Yeah, I mean, that’s and that’s an important distinction to make is, you know, the, the people working at the Forest Service are there for a reason, right? They love the forest as much if not more so than that us but they just don’t have they can’t be everywhere at once to determine what can and can’t happen. And when they’re trying to fight against industry or logging, you know, it’s going to be even that much more difficult to make sure people are making educated decisions before ground gets broken.

Will Harlan
That’s right. This decision is coming from way up at the very top of the administration. And the US Forest Service isn’t at all a reflection of the hard working personnel, the Rangers that you meet every day. They’re doing their best with the limited resources they have. But this proposal makes their jobs way harder, because they no longer have outside scientists. They no longer have public comment to guide them in protecting important places and knowing where, you know, favorite trail heads and hotspots are I mean, they generally know their forest, but the public and scientists play a critical role in helping them do their job. And so the Southern Environmental Law Center has been following this rule really closely. And they actually looked at every single logging project that the Forest Service has done in the southeast over the past 10 years. And what they found is that the projects that included public Comment in scientific input were actually conducted faster than the ones that didn’t have those. So people and scientists can make the project go faster and give them better input in a more timely fashion. So their logic that this is, you know, going to cut bureaucracy and streamline the process is completely flawed in the data, their own data shows that they can actually do a faster and better job with the public and with scientists involved.

DFYB
Yeah, I mean, I that was one of the things that you mentioned was, you know, the think it will speed up the process, and it doesn’t. And also I mean, there is already an allowable amount of this kind of industry within the National Forest. So there, there’s, you know, we understand there’s commercial logging and pipelines, but I don’t think a lot of people are aware of that, but this activities already happening, but it’s just happening under the watch of citizens under the watch of scientists under the watch of people who actually have the ability to determine, hey, this is this old growth is this, you know, a rare habitat. So it’s it’s currently happening, but it’s under some very strict guidelines and regulations right now.

Will Harlan
That’s right. And I think one important distinction to make is and something I didn’t really understand fully until I dove deep into this issue and into other issues is the difference basically, between a National Park and a National Forest, you know, on the map, they all are green spaces, and we think they’re equally protected and manage the same way. But they’re not there’s a very big difference between a national park like Shenandoah and the George Washington, Jefferson national forest that surrounds it. They’re managed by two completely different agencies, two very different ways of managing the lands. Parks are meant primarily for recreation and conservation. There’s no logging in a National Park, but National Forests are managed for multiple uses, and those include timber, as well as recreation, water and wildlife. So we have a multiple use mandate, they have four things they have to do. And traditionally, they focus mainly on timber, but recreation and wildlife and water also important parts of how they’re supposed to manage the forest. But the Forest Service is ultimately under the umbrella of the Department of Agriculture, and this is really important. The parks are under the Department of the Interior, the Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture. So, to the Forest Service, the forests are often viewed as products as agricultural products to be harvested. That view is shifting. In the 21st century, the Forest Service is modernizing and coming to see the forest as more than just agricultural products, but that old mindset still hangs on, especially at higher levels in the Forest Service. And that’s what we’re seeing here with this decision to cut the public and science out of the process.

DFYB
Gotcha. So, okay, so what does the process currently look like? You know, approximately how long does it take and what are they striving to bring the process to like, how will that change?

Will Harlan
Right, so there are logging projects on National Forests, and, you know, how you feel about them, you know, it’s up to you, but but they do do logging projects. And so what I personally think is that if logging is going to be done in national forest, it should be done with strict oversight and lots of public comments. So it’s done in the right places. We should not be logging ever in old growth forests or in a rare species habitat. But maybe there’s some old pine plantations that could be restored by some regenerative logging that takes down just these essentially monocrops and replaces them with a more diverse forest long term. So there are potentially some logging projects that can do some good. But that requires a lot of public oversight and scientific input and expertise that the Forest Service doesn’t always have. And so when they cut the scientists and the public out of the process, we’re going to see some logging projects in some very bad places. And that’s, to me, the most worrisome part of this is proposal.

DFYB
Wow. So you’re saying there’s actually a view of the world where logging process, you know, so I haven’t really made up my mind about how I feel about logging projects. It sounds like it could there could be some benefits to it, you know, if they’re in the right places, especially now that there is some oversight, there is some involvement in the community and scientists as a whole. And so right now, at this point, they’re trying to speed up the process. Where are they like, when would this take into effect if it would, you said there’s going to be some obviously some litigation and some sandbagging, which is great. You know, how long would that take before it would be in effect? If it does.

Will Harlan
So they released this rule as a draft rule in August, they had a very short public comment window. But nonetheless, there were, I think 25,000 public comments that flooded the Forest Service, all opposing this rule, almost 99.9% of them against his rule, whether the Forest Service and the administration will take that into accounts, will see most likely, if the pattern holds, they will ignore public comment, and push forward with this rule, but they still have an opportunity to respond to this deluge of public comments and change the rules so that it does not cut the public and science out of their decision making and that would be a great thing to celebrate. Most likely, though, I think we’ll see a rule in 2020 that somehow cuts the public and science out of their decision making process, which would then enable them to log whenever and wherever they wanted.

DFYB
Wow. Yeah, that’s definitely scary to know that it can happen that quickly.

Will Harlan
And it’s not just logging. I think you’ve probably seen in the news, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline have generated a lot of attention, backlash in some places, and and it now has been stopped by the of all things, the Appalachian Trail has essentially stopped both of those pipelines in their tracks pending a supreme court hearing. So we’re talking pipelines as well as logging projects and other things—mining. There are a lot of projects that the Forest Service can conduct on public lands, but they require public input and oversight and if we decide we don’t want pipelines coming through our National Forest, our voice matters, and for the Forest Service to say your voice doesn’t matter on public lands I think is a great insult to the American people. These are our lands, we own them, we pay for them, and we should have a say and how they’re managed.

DFYB
Yeah, because I mean it does. It impacts everything. It’s not just for environmentalists, it’s for, you know, water quality. And, you know, pipelines like you were mentioning,

Will Harlan
Most of…most of the people in the Mid Atlantic and southeast, they’re drinking water source comes from a National Forest. So most of us are drinking National Forest water. It’s a critical source of water, obviously, of scenic views, recreation has become the driving force of our regional economy, and, you know, for better for worse, the Appalachian region is not sustained by timber, it’s sustained by people coming, hiking our trails, enjoying our scenic views. That’s the future of Appalachia. That’s where we’re growing, and this proposal puts all of that in jeopardy.

DFYB
Yeah. Interesting. So is this something that we is this only a concern in the East? Or is this something that’s also a concern elsewhere in the country?

Will Harlan
Yeah. So this is a national proposal. I focused on the east because that’s where I live, there are actually the most biodiverse national forests are here in the east. But there are millions of acres out west that will also be affected national forests are all across the country from Alaska to Florida, and the whole country will be affected by this. Now different regions have different will have different effects. But here in the east, since most of our logging projects and pipeline projects would fall under that 4,200 acre umbrella, we have more to lose than most other areas. What the Forest Service can do, and this gets really technical, but they can essentially divide a big project like say, the Atlantic coast pipeline into a bunch of small projects. that are under 4200 acres and therefore bypass public comments and scientific review.

DFYB
Wow. So just kind of break it up until it gets to the full project. As long as it stays each individual part stays in the 4200. Holy cow, they’ve thought of everything. That seems the very, very consolidated effort. So, all right, so, you know, in this podcast, I get the opportunity to speak to people from all different walks of life. So I’ve talked to you know, Enrique Ortiz, he’s the executive director of the Andes Amazon Fund. I talked to Chris Duke of the Phoenix Conservancy in Madagascar. They’ve both mentioned to me that they see a lot of this governmental dismantling in their respective countries, whether it’s in Brazil or the Amazon is, or in Madagascar itself. We’re seeing it here, you know, for obvious reasons. The sorry, on the flip side of that, I actually see that there’s a lot of positive public awareness, public concern getting up ticked because because of the administration. Do you see that on your end? Do you see that that uptick in positive concern from the people?

Will Harlan
I do, and it’s sad that it’s taken, you know, some severe environmental insults to triggered this. But yes, I see a wave a tidal wave of, of passionate folks from all walks of life getting more involved, not just in conservation but in democracy, and it’s been really inspiring. But you’re absolutely right. Let’s first state the obvious—as tragic as the NEPA proposal is to gut the public and take the public and science out of our National Forests, my life is not in jeopardy by opposing this, this, this rule. Brazil, that’s a very different story. And all across Latin American, South America and the Amazon and Madagascar, as you mentioned, people defending land are being killed. Environmental Defense is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world more dangerous than being a soldier in most places. We lost 164 people last year, to people simply taking a stand for their land, whether they’re indigenous or just activists trying to protect the Amazon. So beyond our borders, it’s a much more dangerous and serious assault on our environment. Having said that, it’s also really inspiring to see across the globe, not just here in the United States, but around the world this the tsunami of passionate activism, rallying against some of these attacks on the environment. I mean, I think about Greta Thunberg obviously and the climate and the Youth Climate Strike just last month was incredibly inspiring and movements like the Sunrise Movement, and Extinction, Rebellion, these, these protests happening all over the world, the United States and seeing some of that, but really, it’s even more active in Europe and Latin America and in other places. So I’m really inspired by the global outpouring of energy. That’s happening right now.

DFYB
Yeah, same here. And that’s, you know, something I never want to forget. Right. I mean, there’s a lot of distressing things. You know, like you’re mentioning, what we’re talking about right now is just a tip of the iceberg. But there’s the Endangered Species Act. That’s pretty much being gutted. I mean, pretty much everything at this point is in jeopardy if it’s related to the environment at all least in the United States. But it is good to know that there are people on the other side fighting it, like no one’s giving up without a fight. And even though our lives aren’t in jeopardy, it’s it’s it’s still something that people should take very seriously. Because it’s a slippery slope, you start losing a little bit of it, you’re going to lose it all. And, you know, who knows where we’ll be at that point.

Will Harlan
That’s why the NEPA act cutting the public out is maybe more concerning to me than even gutting the Endangered Species Act as I love endangered species and how critical that act is and has been, when you take the public out of public lands, as you mentioned, it’s a very slippery slope to you know, autocratic, corporate or other control of public lands of those lands being sold off to private entities that’s been proposed under this administration. So it is worrisome, but I’ve been really inspired by how many folks have stepped up and responded positively to this. You know, I often think about this, you know, I’ve been in conservation for decades now and I always ask myself, you know, what does take for people to change. And some people can do it voluntarily, they just, you know, are inspired to change to give up, to restrain themselves to go vegetarian or to, you know, attend a rally. Other folks, it takes a crisis. And I think we’re in the midst of a crisis. And that’s inspiring a lot more folks to step up. I wish it didn’t require a crisis, but here we are, and it’s inspiring to see so many people responding.

DFYB
Yeah, yeah, I mean, you can see that all the way down to people running for public office. Right? Whether they had environmentalism as a part of their agendas or not, people are responding and people are realizing “Hey, first of all, if this guy can do it, anyone can run for office (a) but, (b) you know, I probably should jump in, put my hat in the ring right now, while while I can change something.”

Will Harlan
And it’s it’s especially exciting to see especially in conservation, younger people and diverse people getting involved. I think it’s a fair criticism that the conservation movement has traditionally been stale white males, leading it for most of the 20th century. In the 21st century, it has to evolve, and it’s starting to already and the leadership that’s coming from young folks, environmental and social justice coming together, to me is really exciting because you can’t separate the health of our planet from the health of the people who are fighting to protect it. We’re all in this together, and it’s exciting to see that that synergy of folks coming together, working together for the first time really, and and so that’s maybe the most exciting development in the past years, past few years to see environmental justice taking off and so many young people getting involved politically, socially in this movement.

DFYB
Yeah, yeah. That’s something that’s post anything it’s post-race, it’s post, you know, belief system. It’s beyond all of that. So everyone should be involved. And yeah, I mean, exactly like what you’re saying the marriage between, you know, social justice and also environmental justice. I mean, that’s a very thin line right there.

Will Harlan
If you look at where most of the resource extraction happens in Appalachia especially, there’s a, you know, a petrochemical hub plan now for Appalachia, or $86 billion hub essentially that could turn Appalachia into cancer alley, like in Louisiana. Most of the pollution of the resource extraction takes place in poor places is sited in places where there’s African American or Latino populations, and so it’s really exciting to see those folks standing up and saying “not anymore, we’re standing up for our country. communities, our health matters just as much as everyone else’s.” And so that’s where the environment and social justice are coming together to say, we need a new vision of renewable energy infrastructure of forests that are carbon sinks and recreation hubs and more of a sustainable vision for our country. That involves everyone. It’s exciting to see.

DFYB
Yes, yes. So I said at the start of the call that I’m from Charlottesville, Virginia. But right now I live in Wilmington. And we had hurricane Florence a couple of years ago, and just seeing the destruction of Hurricane Florence, and then also, you know, we happen to have one of the more polluted rivers the Cape Fear river which you’ve also written about as well, so you’re very aware of that. Neither the hurricane nor the pollution of the river knows color, like it’s… everyone is impacted and to your point, you know, African American and Hispanic communities, even more so than than other communities. So it’s definitely I mean, this is everyone’s got skin in the game for environmental issues.

Ok, so there’s definitely a lot, a lot going on. And there’s probably a lot for someone who doesn’t have, who doesn’t dive into it as much as you do, or as much as, you know, Blue Ridge Outdoors. What’s going on right now that people can pay attention to other than this current issue? There’s something else on the horizon that you’re thinking about? Is there something else that you, you know, want to get ahead of, that you’ve heard about?

Will Harlan
Well, we’ve talked about a few of these issues. I think forests are underrated. We have we don’t recognize the amazing place that we live in here in the east. Whether you’re in In New York or in Florida, here in the east, we have one of the largest temporary rain forests in the world. It’s essentially a rain forest, and one of the most biodiverse parts of the planets…

DFYB
The most salimanders in the whole world, right?

Will Harlan
That’s right, this is the salimander capital of the world. But a lot of people don’t realize that Alabama, not considered a hotbed of conservation necessarily, but there are more species of frogs and turtles and fish in Alabama, than anywhere else on the planet. So, the southeast, the Mid Atlantic, is an incredible reservoir of biodiversity and our forests are really important in protecting all of that. So our forests are not just important for the economy for our recreation, but also important for this the sustenance of a lot of species and, and also even for climate change. This is a really important place to protect—forests are carbon sinks. They can soak up a lot of carbon and help mitigate climate change. So there’s a lot of reasons to protect our forest, especially right now. But other issues that I see as equally important are the the whole energy infrastructure. Whether this region, especially the Mid Atlantic, southeast, the East in general, is going to become a fossil fueled frack gas pipeline infrastructure that’s that will be in use for the next century, or are we going to build a renewable energy based around solar and wind and more localized energy sources? We’re kind of making that decision right now. Whether we build these pipelines or not, whether we invest more in solar and wind or not, that’s happening right now. And that that will affect the next century because if those pipelines get built, if those solar farms and wind farms don’t get built, we’re going to be stuck with frack gas for Another century. But if we can turn the tide right now and move more toward a more renewable energy infrastructure that saves the health of this entire region and puts us on a much better trajectory. So the decisions being made right now, about pipelines, they may seem insignificant, but we’re going to live with these decisions for the next century. And I hope we can get them right.

DFYB
Yeah. Yeah. And you touched upon this earlier, but the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub that’s been proposed to be built, what was it like $80 billion, or something like that? something ridiculous, but like, much of that is being funded by the Chinese and a lot of that energy will go to go there or, you know, it will lessen the ability for this area, for that area rather—so it’s like, you know, Pennsylvania and West Virginia—to move to renewables. And it’s only going to create, you know, a handful of jobs at the end of the day, like less than 1000 or something like that.

Will Harlan
Right. And, and as you mentioned, most of that gas that’s going to be coming from our ground is going to go overseas. And it’s another sad example of the Appalachian region being exploited for its natural resources, and then damaging it long term. We’ve seen it over and over. Let’s stop the cycle. West Virginia, in my opinion, I’ve been working in the southeast and Mid Atlantic for 20 years is the most beautiful state in the east, but its beauty does not get celebrated and appreciated by enough folks because traditionally, it’s been just hammered by coal mining. And now that we’re starting to see the decline of coal and the resurgence of recreation and tourism in West Virginia, it’s a great opportunity to celebrate what West Virginia has and not decimated with, with a cancer alley petrochemical hub that’s going to lock us into fracked gas for another century. And that will only benefit the Chinese. Now is the time to to change our trajectory and make West Virginia a beautiful, sustainable place of energy where jobs stay locally and the whole region can benefit and not be exploited as it has in the past.

DFYB
Yeah, and they’re already starting to, I don’t think it’s as strong as it should be, but they’re already starting to work on some wind energy, what I’ve driven past or through West Virginia last time, I’ve seen some big turbines. So there, the ball is in motion. But I mean, it’s, it is really hard to I’m sure, combat some of this fracking initiative that’s going to happen, especially if you’re cutting the public out, like you mentioned. Is this hub is this $84 billion project, this is one of those projects that could feasibly be built without the public’s awareness by breaking it into 4,200 or less?

Will Harlan
This is a little different because this will not take place. National Forest lands this will be privately owned, but it’s it’s a, it’s a government funded project, so taxpayers do have a say and how their money is used. This is a private firm, a Chinese firm that’s leading it, and so they will control where the gas goes. But Appalachia has a really, has the voice in deciding whether or not they want this in their backyard. I think we’ve learned this lesson before: fossil fuel industries do not treat the region well. They come in for short term gains and we end up with long term losses as you’re seeing with bankruptcy and coal miners not getting their back pay and being stuck with, you know, black lung disease and not having any funding to treat it. We’ve been here before let’s not make the same mistake again.

DFYB
Yeah, I mean, that’s what this whole thing is for: short term profit. For getting the you know, getting the economy up as strong as possible in the short term and then not worried about it you know, anytime in the future, and you’re exactly right, even if you pull any kind of environmental issue out of it, there’s a health benefit, or there’s, excuse me a health detriment to this.

Will Harlan
Exactly. And that, to me is, is the most important elements of it as much as I love trees and forests and rare species, I’m concerned about the health of Appalachian citizens of all Americans, and especially ones whose backyards are about to be sited with a petrochemical hub that is known to create and generate carcinogens that are unavoidably going to lead to more cancer, to more health problems. That to me outweighs any kind of short term benefit to to economies that’s not going to last for very long and is not going to create very many jobs and is ultimately going to cost more in health care and environmental damage than it then it produces.

DFYB
So with this, you know, it can sound like with what we’re talking about that everything is bad, that everything is kind of burning. One of the interesting things is, you know, I think in February of this year, the Senate passed the biggest bill to protect the most amount of land we protected. So it’s like 1.3 million acres in the West, and then just to make sure that like a lot of these National Parks cannot have any development for mining or anything. So Yellowstone, and then some one in one in Washington. So this is proof that there are some victories out there, even though the administration is trying to erode the, you know, it seems like a lot of the Environmental Protection, is there any other instances of the environment winning over short term profit that you can think of?

Will Harlan
Yes, absolutely. In fact, just nine months ago, the southeast and mid Atlantic’s celebrated one of its biggest victories in a decade—the Tennessee Wilderness Act was passed in this administration, political climate, we passed a 20,000 acre wilderness bill that we’ve been working on for over 10 years that we couldn’t pass in the Obama administration. But here we are in of all times, the Trump administration, getting the Tennessee Wilderness Act passed. They’re protected the Upper Bald Wilderness, parts of Joyce Kilmer, protected over 20,000 acres in you know, the heart of red state territory, was a was a huge victory and something to celebrate. And it was a bipartisan effort. It was led by a republican senator from Tennessee. So conservation is something that traditionally all people you know, of all parties and persuasions cared about. And I think we can get back to that I think conservatives, “conservation” is in their name, and traditionally they were very concerned about conservation. I think we’re moving back in that direction. And even though, yes, the petrochemical hub is depressing, if that happens, it’s also an inflection point just like these pipelines if we stop them that changes course so it’s also an opportunity to change the momentum and and change trajectory if we stop these pipelines, for example, that essentially would ignite the renewable energy infrastructure. It would force us to change course in exciting way. So the challenges, the crises, the threats also present really great opportunities.

“The challenges, the crises, the threats also present really great opportunities.”

DFYB
Yeah, absolutely. And just to your point, like, this is not a partisan issue. Like Teddy Roosevelt was the biggest conservationist we’ve had essentially, as a president: he was Republican. Nixon, you know, say what you want about him, but he started the EPA.

Will Harlan
He signed the Endangered Species Act. So you got to give them props. He’s, you know, he passed more environmental legislation than anyone in the 20th century. First, so, absolutely, and Republicans, they represent a lot of folks who love the outdoors, but maybe see it in a different through a different lens. Here in Appalachia, where there are a lot of hunters, a lot of anglers, who love their forests and love to get out and hunt and maybe they vote conservative, but they care about conservation just as much as tree hugging organic liberal hippies like me… but we don’t.what I found is that we both love the forest for the same reasons we love just being out there immersed in nature, clearing our minds feeling connected to something larger And we need to get back to that because all of the loud discourse in America is driving us apart when really we have much more in common then we realize, especially when it comes to conservation, we all love our public lands, all want to enjoy them, we all want to make sure our children and grandchildren can enjoy them. That common ground that can go a long way.

DFYB
Yeah, I mean, we’re in a really unique position that we have those public lands and every one of us, like you mentioned, we’re all paying our taxes towards them. So we should all utilize them and fight for them. So you cover a lot you cover a lot when you write, pne of the big things that you talk about is the Red Wolves of the Albemarle Sound, North Carolina. My numbers might be off because I know they fluctuated mainly decreased, but the last I heard was like 25 or so—I used to live in that area. Unfortunately, that also seems to be a very polarized issue. But like the last you reported on it, you talked about this, you know, and you could probably talk about a little more, but like a dramatically reduced…a rule that would have dramatically reduced their habitat by 80%, which is already really constricted again, it’s 25 of them very small area. But it wasn’t… it didn’t pass because of the Endangered Species Act. So do you have an update on the status or do you want to just kind of talk about them and inform the listener about potentially how they could help?

Image courtesy of Blue Ridge Outdoors

Will Harlan Yeah, certainly. So the Red Wolf was one of the greatest success stories in conservation and endangered species history. So we essentially started… we…out of captivity, we rescued the Red Wolves from extinction, bred them in captivity, and then release them back into the wild and eastern North Carolina and for for three decades it was an incredible success story of these Red Wolf populations recovering, expanding, thriving, and it was only until 2014 that things changed. So their population got up to from a very small amount that had had essentially been reared in zoos and in captivity, they grew to over 150 wild Red Wolves reproducing naturally. But then, in 2014, a very, very small but vocal group of landowners decided they didn’t like the Red Wolves because they looked too much like coyotes and they wanted to shoot their coyotes, especially at night, and the small group made a lot of noise and got the US Fish US Fish and Wildlife Service to essentially consider abandoning the Red Wolf Project, abandoning their protections for the Red Wolves. The Fish and Wildlife Service has moved in that direction, they pulled back protections, they’re not actively protecting the Red Wolves, and they’ve proposed, essentially shutting down the program by cutting out 80% of their habitat, which essentially dooms the program Red Wolves can’t survive on a small little patch of, you know, the 20% that remains, they just, they’re free roaming predators that can’t be confined to such a small area. So that will essentially doom them in the wild. Fortunately, as you mentioned, the Endangered Species Act said, “Fish and Wildlife, you’re not doing your job. You are required by law to protect this endangered species”, which is endangered species on the planet, as you mentioned, 25 of them left in the wild. So they’ve reached critical numbers where a judge intervened and said, “Nope, this plan is outrageous. You are charged with protecting endangered species. Do your job.” And that’s where things are at right now. So the Fish and Wildlife Service is going back and revising its plan and hopefully restoring the boundaries of the Red Wolf habitat so that they do have a fighting chance in eastern North Carolina and beyond.

DFYB
Yeah. Well, that’s um, yeah, I had no idea that they were trying to really, completely withdraw from that project. So yeah, and I had personal experience when I went, kayaked in that area, and if you pause, we went with a group of us, if you pause, and howl they’ll actually respond to you, which is really cool.

Will Harlan
Nothing more spine tingling than hearing a wild Red Wolf howl That’s just a powerful experience that you can have in eastern North Carolina. And that could potentially draw a lot more recreation and tourism and jobs and all of that, but right now those those Red Wolves are barely hanging on, and I’m really hopeful that this litigation and… there were over 55,000 public comments. That’s the other exciting thing, once again, a deluge of comments saying, “save these Red Wolves, these are the last of the Red Wolves”. And so when the public is overwhelmingly behind something on their public lands, I think it’s really important that the government responds.

DFYB
Wow, so interesting. Yeah. I’ve driven around a lot in that area. And, you know, there’s actually billboards against the Red Wolves. There’s actually a billboards against the National Park, you know, against the workers in that area. And, and I, part of me does get it. I mean, these are people who are ranchers and farmers, who are just trying to make their own living, but I mean, at the end of the day mean there’s 25 of them. I mean, if…you know, I can’t imagine they’re creating that much of an issue, or even the coyotes themselves are creating that much of an issue.

Will Harlan
There have been several studies done down there that show that their impact is minimal, and that the conservation organizations and other groups have offered to reimburse and pay for any losses which are usually quite small. Honestly, it’s become more of an ideological dispute than an actual threat to any farmers or or livestock. That’s really not the issue that’s become kind of a smokescreen. But there’s not any impending threat to livestock or farmland being posed by coyotes or Red Wolves. It’s more an ideological opposition to federal lands, and rare species being introduced are being brought their that— they’re native to the whole eastern United States. They belong, Red wolf should be from, you know, Pennsylvania, maybe even in Canada all the way down into, you know, the Gulf states. So they once roamed all over the East. All that’s left is this one little national wildlife refuge in eastern Carolina. And, you know, if there’s so much local opposition, that maybe they we should move somewhere else, but really it’s a very small minority of folks that oppose the Red Wolves as the public comment show overwhelmingly, people want them there’s just a small group that doesn’t want them and they’re making a lot of noise. It’s complicated. For sure.

DFYB
This vocal minority. Well, that is definitely comforting to hear about. You know, again, it does seem like overall, people are, are thinking about this for the long view and headed in the right direction, regardless of where either the minority of people in that area is going or, you know, the administration itself was going so it’s comforting to know that most people are for, you know, rehabilitating the Red Wolves. You seem to know these this area as good if not better than anyone, where where could they go? Where do you think that these wolves could go? That would be a lot, maybe a little bit less of an issue?

Will Harlan
That’s a good question. I mean, there. There is always the fear of, you know, we have always been portrayed as the big bad wolves. But our Red Wolves are much different. They’re much smaller than even the wolves out west. And they’re not big and bad. And they don’t, they’ve never ever attacked a human and they pose no threat to to us or so. To me, I think they’ve gotten a bad rap. Where could we put them? You know, I we have a lot of public lands and I think any community that was wise would realize that they could have Red Wolves howling in their forests, that would be an incredible draw globally for tourists. The last Red Wolves howling in the wild, I would go there. You know if if eastern North Carolina doesn’t want them, I’m sure there’ll be another place in Appalachia or anywhere in the east. They would say, “bring them here, because we know people will come here just to hear that how just were there in the in the wild.”

DFYB
Yeah, it was when I heard it, it was eerily both comforting but also, I mean, anytime you’re out in the wilderness, you hear something like that, it’s a little bit off putting but in a good way. It makes you realize, hey, we’re not in charge out there, and I for one, love that. But yeah, I mean, they are there they are closer to the size of coyotes than gray wolves. So they’re not huge. They’re not the big menace that people have come to expect, you know, at least to people. Yeah, I mean, I’m looking at pictures of them right now and they’re very strikingly beautiful creatures.

Well, cool. So I’ve got to ask you some questions about running, so you I mean, you are a very experienced trail runner so much so that you’ve got a documentary came out last year El Chivo about you and about your, you know, endurance running in the Copper Canyon in Mexico. So, I’ve got to ask you shout out to Katie and Cam about this, but yeah, so what is like your what is your favorite trail? What is your favorite area to run, either in this area and also nationwide?

Will Harlan
I think we’ve got some of the best trails in the country in the world right here in in Appalachia in the east. You know, people often go out west and there’s some majestic, amazing trails, and I’ve run a bunch of them. I run the western states 100 Run a lot in California. But my favorite trail is the Appalachian Trail, especially the seven miles to go across Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some of the most jaw droppingly beautiful scenery, some of the toughest technical trail, some of the most panoramic, amazing vistas, some of the wildest experiences. It’s just magnificent. So, I put the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies ahead of just about any trail on this on this planet. The Art Loeb Trail down here. Most people don’t know about it, that’s fine with me, because it’s one of my favorites. It’s, it’s a 40 mile trail through a wilderness, which has no roads, very few signs. It’s one of the wildest spots in the east and there’s an incredible trail that goes right through the heart of it, where you are essentially out there all by yourself, and it’s a pretty powerful experience. But yeah, those are two of my favorites. I like the the tough stuff. I like the really rugged technical steep stuff because honestly, I’m not super fast. So my strategy has always been to wear people down through tough conditions, tough terrain, hope they get tired and hope hope that I can outlast them.

DFYB
Yeah, I was gonna say the great Smokies isn’t known for, at least some stretches of it isn’t known for being the easiest parts of the AT. That’s pretty cool. Have you ever done, you know, Maine and up there? That section of the AT?

Will Harlan
I run parts in Vermont as well, yeah, it’s super rugged up there as well. The Appalachian Trail you know, we don’t have 14,000 foot summits like they do out out west. But we asked Pacific Crest Trail hikers and Continental Divide hikers, they will say the AT is every bit as tough as some of those, you know, big 14,000 foot nice because our climbs go straight up a lot of times really steep rocky slopes, and all sorts of tough weather and terrain. So there’s plenty of challenge right here in Appalachia that you don’t need to go out west, you don’t need to go the Alps, you can get plenty of challenge right here on the AT and the trails that surround it.

DFYB
Yeah, absolutely. So is that how you train just by going out and running? Like that’s the big thing…the runs themselves are short. The training, presumably lasts all year, if not your whole life, so is that how you do it is just by going out and training in tough conditions?

Will Harlan
That’s right. That’s, that’s my bread and butter. That’s what I love to do. And to me, it’s not training. I mean, it is, you know, working toward a race, but really, it’s just an adventure in the woods. And I’d like tough adventures where I’m out there on my own, where I don’t see another person and so I go to the toughest, steepest places to do it. And you see the wildest terrain and you see some amazing creatures and you, you know, stumble into black bears and you feel wild and small…usually they run away from me I’ve seen more black bear, butts usually hightailing it away. But yeah, that’s that’s how I trained is just to train both physically and mentally because it’s it’s the mental aspect, especially trail running and ultra running, where you have to be able to will yourself to keep going when it’s raining or snowing and the trail is steep and rocky and wet and slippery. It’s really easy to give up and it’s the one…it’s the folks that can master the mental aspect of it that tend to do well.

DFYB
Yeah, like how, what are the notable races both in difficulty or length that you’ve done in the past and what are you planning, you know, if anything what are you working towards to do in the future?

Will Harlan
So my favorite race and the one I had the most success with was the Mount Mitchell 40 mile challenge which starts down in Asheville essentially and goes straight up to the top of the highest mountain east of the Mississippi which is Mount Mitchell: 6,684 feet. You run up to the top in the dead of winter, it’s always in February, the mountain is covered usually covered in snow and ice and and then you come straight down and I won that race five times and had a course record for a while. But these youngins are getting faster and faster and can barely keep up. So Mount Mitchell challenge is one of my favorites because it’s a wintertime rugged, extreme race in the most elemental, raw conditions. And it’s just a an astonishing beautiful course. As you mentioned already Copper Canyon Ultra, which is the exact opposite. It’s in the canyons of Mexico super hot, hundred degree heat, searing canyon walls, you just get baked out there for 50 miles. And you’re running alongside the most amazing human being on the planet, these Tarahumara indigenous people who run for hundreds of miles virtually barefoot, with no Gatorade or fancy gear. They’ve got a little sack of cornmeal and that and that’s essentially what sustains them for hundreds of miles. So they’re pretty phenomenal human beings.

DFYB
Yeah. What was your time for the Mount Mitchell 40 mile, the one that you won?

Will Harlan
I think it was four hours and 50 minutes, but that’s since been shattered by some much more talented runners who run I think close to 430. The sport has been getting faster every year. And that’s exciting to see because it’s a young sport, I think it’s going to continue to grow. And there’s so many great challenges to take, and so many great trails to explore. So I’m excited to see what’s going.

DFYB
Yeah. And it’s one of the few sports that you can really like you’re mentioning play with the conditions. You know, okay, let’s do this on the dead of winter. Let’s do this one in the blistering heat. Let’s do this one in snow or rain or just over different terrain, there’s so much more you can do with it versus like, golf or something.

Will Harlan
Right. Low barrier to entry. All you need is a pair of shoes and the Tarahumara don’t even have shoes, so don’t necessarily even need those but doesn’t cost a lot. You can go out on trails for free. You can challenge yourself in the craziest wildest conditions in the wildest ways, you don’t need to race, you don’t really even need a watch or a clock but that you know, sometimes your best challenge is against yourself. That sort of to me is: Can I be faster than I was yesterday? And can I be better than I was before? I’m usually my toughest and hardest competitor.

DFYB
Yeah, well, it’s good. That’s probably a healthy way of going about it is just competing with yourself. So, in terms of, you know, what we were chatting about earlier with a lot of the environmental issues they seem to, it’s really like a death by 1000 cuts, it really seems to be something new in the news every day. What can people do both to stay informed of what’s an often complex and ever evolving subject matter and topic? With you know, whether it’s about Red Wolves or whether it’s about you know, just keeping an eye out for the National Forest, what can people do to stay on top of everything and then also what can people do to help to make sure a lot of these you know, issues don’t become bigger than they are?

Will Harlan
I think the number one thing to do, the first place to start is go outside, go outside and play. Doesn’t have to be a National Forest, it can be a local park, but get out there, connect to it, experience it. You know, when you go to a sports game or you go to a concert, you are suddenly so much more invested in that performance. And you feel a part of it and you want to follow it and feel connected to it. Same is true of, you know, the wild places in your backyard. So when you experience it, you automatically become a natural advocate for it. And that to me is the most important part is getting folks just naturally connected to the places where they live the places that they love. And then from there you can join trail crews, join movements. Sadly, most of the trails in our neck of the woods, most of the trails across the country are not maintained by Forest Service or Park Service staff, they’re maintained by volunteers. And most of them, most of those volunteers, our, our 60, 70 years old. It’s an aging volunteer workforce. And we need young folks to come in and help a new younger generation of trail maintainers to build and expand our trail networks. That’s one fun way to get involved. But you don’t have to necessarily get your hands dirty. Make some noise—as you talked about earlier, get involved politically. Even if you’re not championing National Forests or public lands, if you have a natural connection to them, you’ll be looking out for them and we need younger folks and new folks to to lead the way, so take some chances, do something different whether it’s a hike that you didn’t think you were capable of doing or running for an office that you didn’t think you were qualified for. Be bold, now is the time to take some risks and speak up and make yourself heard.

DFYB
Yeah, the price of inaction or remaining quiet can be really big and it’s something you’ll never know until oftentimes, it’s too late. It’s funny that you mentioned about the people volunteering with the trail. My dad turned 64 this year and he just started talking about volunteering with the trail himself.

Will Harlan
And they, they do phenomenal work, if you’ve ever been out on any trail. Next time, look at the rocks and the tree roots and imagine how much work went into that trail and how much work continues to go into that trail just to keep it accessible. Every year, every trail is maintained because they quickly disappear with the maintenance. And so it takes a lot of sweat equity. And that’s a fun way to join a trail crew team that it’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of work, it’s a great workout and it’s a great way to get to know your trail on a much more personal level.

DFYB
Yeah, that’s absolutely something I want to do. Yeah, especially whenever I’m in the area with him. Well, cool. I mean, I mentioned earlier. So you are a New York Times bestselling author. Is there any project that you’re working on right now? You know, you wrote the book Untamed, so I’m not sure if you want to talk about that, but it is the story of the you know, the whitelist women in America and the fight for Cumberland Island, which is exactly like what we’ve been talking about, you know, one person really seeming to take an issue larger than themselves and take it on, completely head on. So it seems like some kind of thing that fits into this trend that we’ve been talking about.

Will Harlan
Yes, so Carol, is an amazing woman. It’s a biography that I wrote about Carol Ruckdeschel, who lives on Cumberland Island, which is the National Seashore off the coast of Georgia, and if you need inspiration, there’s no no person that I find more inspiring than Carol. What she’s done to protect that island and its sea turtles, and it’s old growth forests. She’s a pretty remarkable woman. There aren’t a lot of people like Carol left. So I’ve been looking for another Carol to write my next book. So if if you know of anyone, if any of your listeners know of anyone, I’m eager to find similar heroes, similar people with passion and courage and grit, who are defending the places that they love.

DFYB
Well, Will, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate that. I think that what you’re doing right now is incredibly important, and also very timely. So thank you for the good work that you’re doing. And also for getting everyone’s story out there, and making sure we’re all as informed as possible, and we all know how we can move forward with helping National Parks, National Forests, and also Red Wolves and everything else that you talk about on a daily basis. So thank you.

Will Harlan
Likewise, thank you for including me and sharing all of this information with your audience, it sounds like you’re doing really great work. Thank you so much.

DFYB
Absolutely. I appreciate it. And yes, let’s keep in touch, you know, as issues come up, as there’s things that we need to inform the public about. I would love to I would love to chat with you again.

Will Harlan
Absolutely. I love it.

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