Chapel Hill: Opinion

Kirk Ross: Protect their legacy; protect our state

I’ve found over the course of time in our little towns that it does a body good to venture out on a cold winter night and have a bit of Cheese Pork!

I try to do it at least once a year and this year’s outing to Crooks Corner for Bill Smith’s celebrated and most punctuated winter meal ended up being pretty special.

First, because I learned the origin of exclamation point in the dish’s title, even met the man who added it. And second, because as I was waiting for my meal in walked Milton Heath.

A lot of you, especially old school Chapel Hillians and current Carrborians, probably know or have heard of Milton’s son, Frank, who owns and operates the Cats Cradle. What you might not know even if you are a longtime local is that the elder Mr. Heath was instrumental in the development of the first real environmental laws of this state.

A Chapel Hill native, Heath returned home in 1957 to take an appointment as a professor of natural resources and environmental policy at the Institute of Government, the start of a career of 50-plus years. He’s one of those people whose bio usually includes the word “generations” when talking about how many people he’s taught.

Ten years after he started at the institute, this state saw the dawn of a new way of thinking about the environment among its elected leaders. Trouble was, there were not a lot of people around who knew how to turn the ideas of protecting our water, air and natural resources into law. Fortunately for North Carolina, we had the right person at the right time in Milton Heath. From 1967 to 1983 he served as legal counsel to the House and Senate committees that initiated most of the state’s environmental laws.

Professor Heath and his colleagues didn’t have to invent the wheel, but they had to build one that could negotiate the widely varied terrains of North Carolina, including that very rocky road known as Jones Street.

As he sat down at the bar next to me for his meal, I introduced myself, told him I was a big fan of his work and was up at the legislature a lot these days. We kinda took it from there.

The conversation, forever OTR (off the record), reminded me just how far we came in his era and how difficult it was to change not only the laws but the culture of a state where a straight pipe to the nearest creek or river was the waste stream of choice.

As we see what kind of challenges we’re facing when it comes to protecting this land and the enthusiasm, swiftness and rather cold-blooded greed driving the attempt to roll back protections hard won, it serves us well to remember the skill and tenacity of generations past.

The legacy of those pioneers is in our hands. I’ll leave you with the words they managed to write into this state’s constitution. They’re worth remembering as we ponder rivers flowing with ash and sewage.

“It shall be the policy of this State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry, and to this end it shall be a proper function of the State of North Carolina and its political subdivisions to acquire and preserve park, recreational, and scenic areas, to control and limit the pollution of our air and water, to control excessive noise, and in every other appropriate way to preserve as a part of the common heritage of this State its forests, wetlands, estuaries, beaches, historical sites, openlands, and places of beauty.”

That’s not just a bunch of nice thoughts. It’s the law of the land. Maybe we should act like it.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at