The Virginia Festival of the Book gets underway Wednesday, and this year the program features a remarkable writer who, with the help of his Virginia lawyers, saved a mountain.
Jay Leutze got his law degree from the University of North Carolina, but he decided not to practice. Instead, he moved to his family’s cabin on Yellow Mountain in the Roan Highlands – an area famous in geological circles for its grassy balds.
“They’re open pastures. We believe that they were kept open by wooly mammoths, then bison and elk, and then when European settlers came in, they were kept open by grazing cattle.”
He planned to hike, fish and write novels, but a real life story caught his ear when crews began cutting down trees across the valley to make way for a massive surface gravel mine – a facility that would blast and crush stone 24 hours a day. A permit had been issued without a single public hearing, but Leutze wasn’t sure anything could be done, until he got a call from a neighbor.
“She informed me that she had evidence that the mine owner was violating the Mining Act of 1971, and she asked me to meet her the next day, and that’s when I learned that she was a 14-year-old child. She was being raised by her Aunt Ollie and her Uncle Curly, and her Uncle Curley had given her a dial-up Internet connection for her birthday, and what she uncovered led to one of the great cases in regulatory history.”
Leutze also got help from Southern Environmental Law Center, based in Charlottesville, and because the mine could be seen and heard from the Appalachian Trail, its superintendant stepped in.
“When the Department of the Interior sent Pam Underhill into Avery County at one of these public meetings, it’s like time stood still in our little county. That the federal government was in the house to urge the state of North Carolina to revoke the permit — it was incredibly powerful!”
Opponents of the mine also used the Internet to reach hikers around the world.
“The most public comments that had ever been received in writing by this department on a mining permit was twelve. We submitted 3,650 public comments, and we basically shut down the state of North Carolina division for about three months.”
During a four-year battle to save their mountain, Leutze got to know and respect his neighbors – in particular Ashley’s aunt. He was so taken with her intelligence and humor, that he began his book with a description of Ollie Cox.
“The story of the Southern Mountains is told in her face. The crepe soft skin is laid over stone hard bone. She is as white as February snow, but her blue eyes smoulder.
I ask her, ‘Where did they come from-your father’s people?” I want to hear about her ancestors – the Cherokee side and the Scotch-Irish kin, the old timers who came here to hide or scratch dirt or seek a wage felling timber. I want to hear about her wire thin Appalachian grandmothers who walked these steep ridges, these wildflower slopes, but she can’t call it up. Either she can’t remember or she won’t.”
“She only shakes her head softly. ‘Son, you ain’t mountain. I’m mountain. That’s all the hell I am, and you wouldn’t never understand.’ She is right, but I will try.”
He succeeded so well that a publishers’ bidding war broke out over his book – Stand Up That Mountain, a memoir that ends with a victory in court. In 2004, the Putnam mine was closed, and when its owners asked to mine gravel at a site six miles away – beside the Blue Ridge Parkway – the state told them to take a hike.