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Review: “Stand Up That Mountain”

08/20/12 by Salisbury Post

“Stand Up That Mountain,” by Jay Erskine Leutze. Scribner. 2012. 387 pp. $27. E-book, $12.99.

This review by Deirdre Parker Smith appeared in the August 19, 2012, issue of the Salisbury Post.

For compelling non-fiction, look no further than “Stand Up That Mountain,” a handsome title for an environmental book that reads like a thriller.

The book jacket suggests it will appeal to attorneys, but don’t let that put you off. This story of saving a mountain and the view from a section of the Appalachian Trail will appeal to anyone who loves our North Carolina mountains, green spaces, mountain hikes. It’s a great story for others who want to fight to save land, to preserve a way of life, even. And it shows that sometimes the little guy can win.

Author Jay Erskine Leutze will be in Salisbury Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Center for the Environment at Catawba College to talk about his book and conservation.

It should be an exhilarating talk. Leutze threw himself into this battle to stop a rock crusher with both feet, head first, and at the speed of light.

He ate, slept, dreamed and made himself sick over stopping Clark Stone Co. from tearing down Belview Mountain in Avery County. And not just because he lives within hearing distance of the blasting and backup beepers. Clark Stone’s gaping scar on the mountain is clearly visible from a section of the Appalachian Trail at Hump Mountain, a mountain bald that allows for wide-ranging views.

But he wasn’t the only one. Leutze is first approached by the Cox-Cook clan, namely Ollie, a mountain woman with the fight of a mountain lion, Ashley, a teenager who’s not just wise, but smart as a whip, and nosy Freddy, who can spy on the mining operation on his motorcycle. And he does. And they all take photos and they document everything from the burned houses the company uses for fill in their haul road, which is right on a trout stream bed, to drilling while the permit is on hold.

Of course, you are hearing this story from the bleeding heart liberal, tree-hugging side, but it’s a good side to be on in this case. The little group draws attention from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Southern Environmental Law Center, among others, and they stick through to the end, making their fight a model for others and an impetus for rules and regulations to be more clear and absolute.

Leutze even makes the villain a palatable character. He does not demonize Paul Brown, who is leasing the land and has a 99-year permit to mine the rock — essentially, tear the mountain down — to provide gravel for the area’s and nation’s roads.

Brown is a businessman, first and foremost, and has never even thought of the Appalachian Trail or anyone else in his way. None of that matters to him or the people who work for him. Brown and his employees just want to do everything the fastest way possible, and if that means skipping a few public hearings or doctoring your map so it seems like there’s no reason for public hearings on the impact to neighbors, so be it.

Brown’s practical — if there’s stone, then it’s meant to be taken and used for people’s needs. Conservation is probably not a word in his vocabulary.

What Leutze and his gang find out is that many people in the state have never even heard of the Appalachian Trail, much less know where it is, and they have no idea it’s a National Park. Other think it’s just a bunch of hippies and drug addicts up there, running away from something. Mountain people really do live in a world of their own. Even fierce Ollie, whose foundation cracked when the first blast ripped the face off the mountain, is suspicious and a little scared of Raleigh. She trusts practically no one.

Ashley, the genius, has done extensive research through the Internet, and piles up information that leads the fight into a battle.

The process is long, with feints and parries, wins and losses on both sides, but Leutze makes it sing, somehow. He doesn’t go line-by-line, but is good at giving the facts and the overall outcome succinctly, with the pace of a thriller. Leutze has a law degree that he never used, but it gives him the knowledge and the connections to wade through the bureaucratic blah blah blah and work with the attorneys, who are a sterling cast themselves.

Among the other characters you meet will be Tommy Burleson — yes, that N.C. State basketball star Tommy Burleson — and a raft of judges, environmentalists and more Avery County folk. Leutze never looks down on his mountain neighbors, but he does cast a curious glance at some of the “officials” he runs into, and raises the question of how loud money talks.

To say “Stand Up That Mountain” is a page-turner is no exaggeration. It’s the story of a precedent-setting case that will be cited for years to come. No matter if you are on the side of business or preservation, this book will open your eyes to what a hard-fought victory is.

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