Esther Cunningham, whose outrage over environmentally destructive use of public lands prompted the U.S. Forest Service to change its management policies, died Sept. 20, 2011. Cunningham was 93.
Nearly 30 years ago, having reached an age when most people looked forward to retirement, Cunningham founded the Western North Carolina Alliance
A wife, mother and grandmother, Cunningham co-founded the Alliance at age 64 after learning of proposals to allow exploration for oil and gas in WNC’s two national forests, the Nantahala and the Pisgah.
Cunningham, a Macon County native, pulled together her friends and neighbors, environmentalists and hunters, natives and newcomers in a successful effort to stop the proposal. Her work changed the way the Forest Service manages its lands.
“She was, and continues to be, an inspiration to me and thousands of others in the region and beyond,” said Monroe Gilmore, a Black Mountain resident and 1991 recipient of the Alliance’s Esther Cunningham Award, given annually to a WNC resident who has provided outstanding community service in conserving the area’s natural resources.
“A great oak has indeed fallen in our Western North Carolina forests,” Gilmore said. “But as in the forest, Esther has already nurtured and nourished innumerable seedlings. Her work and life continue through them.”
Cunningham attributed her leadership skills to her pushing herself and her brother and sisters through high school in Macon County. Cunningham lost both of her parents at the end of the Great Depression, her mother from cancer, her father in an automobile accident, she said in an oral history recorded in 1998 by Kathryn Newfont, a history professor at Mars Hill College who has since written a book about environmental activism in Western North Carolina.
Cunningham said made good on her promise to her mother that she’d see each of her siblings through high school. To make money for the family, Cunningham opened a beauty shop on Main Street in Franklin.
“I admired Esther because she had effectively mobilized many longtime mountain residents to protect their forests,” Newfont told The Fountain, a publication of the UNC Chapel Hill graduate school, in 2000. “Moreover, she did this by thinking outside the traditional environmentalist box, by recognizing the potential in rural mountain culture to produce a powerful forest stewardship ethic.
“She was a gifted leader and organizer, and she spoke her neighbors’ language, so she was able to translate local ideas about the forests into a potent regional movement to protect them.”
Cunningham’s work continues today through the work of Alliance, which works to protect the region’s mountains, rivers, and forests. From those early days when Cunningham and other volunteer leaders worked out of the trunk of a car in the far western counties, the Alliance has grown into a strong organization with six staff and two AmeriCorps volunteers who work throughout the region's 23 mountain counties.