Jay Leutze got his law degree from the University of North Carolina, but he decided not to practice law.
Instead, he moved to his family’s cabin on Yellow Mountain in the Roan Highlands – an area famous in geological circles for its rare grassy balds.
“Grassy balds are openings that are not above the tree line, but were not created by man, so they’re open pastures,” he explains. “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.”
From his home, Leutze could see Mt. Rogers in Virginia, the Great Smoky Mountains and Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in the East. He planned to hike, fish and write novels.
“I imagined leaving the mountain once every two weeks to drive down to the post office and pick up royalty checks for the fiction that I was crafting, trying to stay secluded from the paparazzi,” he says with a smile. “That is not what happened. I wrote in silence, and I put novels into the job, and then one day a story sort of was born in my life that I knew I had to write about, and it changed my writing life and the rest of my life as well.”
He heard chain saws and trees falling on the other side of the valley, and discovered a local business man, was planning to create a massive surface gravel mine on Bellevue Mountain – 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,” Leutze recalls, “She asked me to meet her the next day, and that’s when I discovered 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. She was being home schooled, so she had all day long, between lessons, to figure out what Paul Brown and the Putnam Mine crew were up to, and what she uncovered led to one of the great cases in regulatory history.”
Leutze tried to get legal help from several environmental groups, but they were reluctant to get involved.
“Legal battles can be costly and can drag you off your mission,” he explains, “and so I had to find just the right kind of conservation organization, and I did.”
That organization was the Southern Environmental Law Center, based in Charlottesville. It agreed to represent Leutze and his neighbors at no charge. And because the mine in question could be seen and heard from the Appalachian Trail, its superintendent 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,” Leutze says. “The federal government was in the house to urge the state of North Carolina to revoke the permit. It was powerful!”
And opponents of the mine used the Internet to reach hikers around the world. The largest number of public comments ever received by the state on a mining permit was twelve. Opponents of this mine submitted 3,650 public comments.
During a four-year battle to save their mountain, Leutze got to know and respect his neighbors – in particular Ashley’s Aunt Ollie. She had nicknames for everyone including Jay – who’s well over six feet tall. She called him Little Buddy.
“The reason she liked to nickname people was because she was convinced that her phone was being tapped,” Leutze explains. “She had her own way of listening in on conversations. She had scanning equipment, because her husband worked for the county, and managed their vehicles, so if there was a snow storm, he needed to be able to hear what was going on out on the county’s roads, so Ollie would call me up and say, ‘My little buddy, I hope you’re on a landline, because you ain’t going to believe this!’
Leutze was so taken with her intelligence and humor, that he began his book with this description of Ollie Cox.
Leutze 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.
“They tried to open this same mine six miles to the south, and in that location they were no longer next to the Appalachian Trail. They were next to the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Leutze says, smiling at the irony.
This time the state denied the permit.
Jay Leutze’s memoir has made the bestseller list for independent book stores in the South, and he now serves as a trustee for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, working to preserve more wild and beautiful mountains.
He will speak Saturday, March 23 at 2 p.m. in the Charlottesville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, 201 West Main Street, as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book.