Doing Better at Doing Good

Plenty to learn from activist who saved Belview Mountain

November 24, 2012 

During this season of thanksgiving, there’s a fellow North Carolinian who is especially deserving of our gratitude – both for the things he has done on behalf of our state and for the positive changes he might yet inspire all of us to make.

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Jay Erskine Leutze. And that’s probably fine with Leutze, a UNC Law graduate turned countercultural mountain man turned environmental activist.

He’s the author of “Stand Up That Mountain: The Battle to Save One Small Community in the Wilderness Along the Appalachian Trail.”

Published earlier this year by Scribner, the book is Leutze’s first-person account of the epic fight that began more than a decade ago to save North Carolina’s Belview Mountain, located next to the Appalachian Trail, from a mining company’s efforts to destroy it.

In gripping, colorful and frequently humorous prose, Leutze recounts how an outgunned, feisty grass-roots coalition, ranging from teenagers to the elderly, rallied on behalf of its sacred land – and succeeded in preserving Belview Mountain and also setting new legal precedents for revoking mining permits. It’s a feel-good, true story that offers a fascinating look inside the workings of our state’s economic development, regulatory and legal engines.


What’s equally instructive is the unlikely emergence of Leutze, who for many years actively sought obscurity, as a prominent conservationist.

After graduating from law school in 1990, Leutze practiced corporate law in Boston and Chicago. Then, after just two years, he quit, took his savings and retreated to his family’s property near Belview Mountain. There, he planned to write, fish and hike in his favorite spot in the world until he ran out of money or energy.

“I couldn’t find anyone else making the same gamble, any fellow experimenters inverting the establishment progression from school to marriage to work to retirement, but it seemed perfectly reasonable to me when faced with the alternative, a job behind a desk, riding in airplanes in a suit and a tie,” he writes in his book.

In doing so, Leutze tapped deeply into what Dr. Larry Koenig, an influential expert in personal development, calls our “centers of brilliance” – those distinctive and innate talents that each of us have and that many of us lose sight of as we attempt to make a mark on the world.

“Few people are involved in work that makes use of their unique talents,” Koenig says in his workbook “Centers of Brilliance.” “Also, few people work in settings that fit their personality. Fewer still work in a situation which both makes use of their explicit talents and fits their personality. Because so few do, we currently have a workforce in America full of people who are enormously dissatisfied and who are working far below their potential level of productivity.”

Applying expertise

Belview Mountain is still standing in large part because Leutze marshaled his own eclectic centers of brilliance – legal expertise, an intense passion for nature, a talent for collaboration with a diverse group of activists. When the opportunity came to employ them all at the same time, he was ready. And, in all likelihood, there were few folks in North Carolina better suited to the occasion.

We have far too many challenges in our state, from health care to education to job creation, to have anybody working below their potential. We need more Jay Erskine Leutzes: people who pick one specific challenge that matters deeply to them and then throw themselves wholeheartedly into solving it.

That doesn’t mean we should all quit our jobs and move into remote cabins. But, during a time of year meant to encourage pause and reflection, we can take stock of our strengths, needs, passions and values – the way Leutze did as he was walking away from a promising big-city career into the uncertainty of the wilderness.

That means stepping out of the fray through periodic breaks and daily habits of renewal to consider our life journey and what we can do to enhance it and the world around us. It means being awake to new opportunities and opening ourselves up to input from friends, family, and those who have been on the journey before us. From these reflective efforts comes a quality often in short supply in our culture: self-awareness. And, as Leutze proves, self-awareness can move mountains, or save them.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward and HUB Raleigh, and the author of "Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of "The Messy Quest for Meaning.” They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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