Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, a plan by U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to consider a 105 square mile area of Western North Carolina, including Sandy Mush, as a site for a highly radioactive nuclear waste repository became the wake up call which generated a community response whose ramifications still resonate. It is hard to fathom that the mountain coves and valleys of Sandy Mush could be seriously considered as top cover for a deep underground nuclear waste dump whose radioactive contamination has a minimum half-life of 700 million years. Though, when it comes to bureaucratic decision making involving burial sites for radioactive material propelled by the imperative to find a solution, emotional and aesthetic considerations take a distant back seat to factors such as sparsely populated rural mountain locations, relative accessibility to East Coast nuclear waste generating facilities, a thick layer of granite bedrock and tectonic plate/fault line geology. What powerful governmental and corporate interests underestimated about Sandy Mush, however, was the resistance from concerned members of the community with close ties to the land. Their opposition rapidly galvanized into growing public pushback. In the ensuing 20 years of legal wrangling, citizen environmental advocacy resulted in DOE plans for Sandy Mush finally being shelved. Interestingly, part of the area under waste site consideration included parcels owned by Progress Energy Corporation. In 2004, this land was sold to the State of North Carolina to be set aside as the 2700-acre Sandy Mush Game Lands, under auspices of North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Not that in matters combining politics and radioactivity we should ever fully rest on success, establishment of Sandy Mush Game Lands represented closure of sorts in a long saga. The successful defense of the land has sensitized our community to the need for vigilance, to not take our mountains, farms and small communities for granted and the necessity to effectively organize to confront inevitable future challenges – urban sprawl, slope development, natural gas fracking, et al.
Paralleling the controversy over a prospective Sandy Mush nuclear waste site had been the steady economic demise of small local farms. In 1989, these changing agricultural realities resulted in the establishment of the Farmland Preservation Program, a first-in-the-state initiative sanctioned by Buncombe County Board of Commissioners ordinance. Farmland Preservation is a voluntary, non-binding commitment by landowners, who acknowledge the importance of keeping agricultural holdings in farm use, adhering to approved land management practices, adapting creative agricultural solutions and generally promoting our rich agrarian heritage. By the early 2000s, dedicated landowners who wanted to legally ensure that their beloved farms and woodlands would continue to remain intact for enjoyment of future generations turned to conservation easements as a logical next step. Landowners, working closely with major conservation groups, supported by visionary state and county government leaders and financially assisted by several generous private benefactors, began to make purchase of easement rights reality, permanently setting aside tracts from development. Perhaps not coincidentally, conservation easements gained particular traction in Sandy Mush. Certainly, few could have imagined that by 2017, Sandy Mush would become a leader in this arena, with over 7,000 acres of prime soils, critical wildlife habitat, pristine forest and riparian ecosystems and pastoral mountain viewscapes permanently protected. Such land gifts, transcending the donors’ lifetimes, are intended to serve residents and visitors in generations to come. It is a legacy of which both Big and Little Sandy Mush communities can be proud.