Tom Earnhardt, the steward of North Carolina outdoors

Tom Earnhardt in his element, Roan Mountain and the Appalachian Trail.
Tom Earnhardt in his element, Roan Mountain and the Appalachian Trail. Photo courtesy of Tom Earnhardt

Tom Earnhardt, the consummate outdoorsman, believes all plant and animal life depend on each other, whether it’s a big buck roaming northeastern North Carolina or a salamander slithering over rocks in Hazel Creek in the Smokey Mountains.

Earnhardt, a Raleigh resident, has spent his life exploring from the mountains to the seashore. His multifaceted dedication encompasses hunting and fishing and researching and studying nature in the Tar Heel State.

Encourage him to talk about these passions and it’s like you have blown open the dam and there’s no holding back the water. He expounds with enthusiasm, gesturing with his hands and always smiling. You’ll hear about the ancient rituals of nature’s calendar, and the awe-inspiring experience as nature speaks “to us through 1,000 voices – wind, water, shapes and colors.”

Earnhardt, 68, feels sorry for children never exposed to nature. He worries about the lack of stewardship for the land, and he questions what he calls a lack of leadership and understanding of the environment among the state’s leaders.

“I believe without awe, there will be fewer stewards. Children and adults detached from the land and its life forms have less desire to protect and care for the natural world than those who know it well,” he writes in his latest book, “Crossroads of the Natural World.”

“Sadly too many children have never seen a snake in the wild, much less a fox, a bobcat or a bear. Yet they fear them all. The real killers, however, are sugary drinks, fatty-salty diets, driving while texting and lack of exercise ”

Earnhardt’s parents gave him free reign to explore nature during his boyhood in the 1950s spent in Thomasville and the family cabin in Hickory Nut Gorge near Asheville.

“From my earliest memories on Bear Wallow Mountain in the late 1940s to this very moment, the natural world has been integral to my life and that of my family,” he said during an interview at the University of North Carolina Press, which published his latest book. “I was especially fortunate to have parents who tolerated, and even encouraged my collection of the month – rocks, beetles, butterflies, pressed flowers and arrowheads ”

Earnhardt’s father, who taught him how to fly fish, presented him with a fly tieing kit on his ninth birthday. When the fishing was slow, his dad, a textiles salesman, pointed out the bounties of nature. His mother supplied the books corresponding to his interests. Thus, the fire was ignited that has turned Earnhardt into one of the most respected and knowledgeable lovers of North Carolina’s natural world.

He is the writer, host and co-producer of public TV’s “Exploring North Carolina,” an Emmy-nominated series that has been on the air for 11 years. Earnhardt also has written two other books – “Fly Fishing the Tidewater” and “Boats for Fishermen.” A new book with the working title of “Native Intelligence” is expected in the next year or so.

Earnhardt has accomplished all this without any formal education in the sciences. He is a lawyer by trade and taught at the NCCU Law School for 21 years. In 1971, fresh out of UNC law school, he landed a job as an attorney in the N.C. Department of Justice. Robert Morgan, then attorney general, told Earnhardt to spend one-third of his time “in a new legal arena: environmental law.”

It was from Morgan that Earnhardt learned about the essence of the new environmental laws being issued by the state and federal governments. He remembers a meeting with Morgan when the attorney general coined “Morgan’s Law: There is one rule that every good farmer lives by, and I guess you could call it old-time environmental law. Never build your outhouse over your well.”

Two men, the late William Friday, president of the UNC system, and the late Grier Martin, president of Davidson College, have had a profound influence on Earnhardt.

“I am amazed at how they could talk through any problem with civility,” he said.

Earnhardt wishes that today’s leaders possessed the same statesman qualities as Friday and Martin.

“We’re faced with a pure leadership issue,” he said. “It’s not a Republican or Democratic issue. We need leadership that understands the significance of a quality environment. That is very important in attracting the IBMs and the Ciscos to North Carolina. Much of our prosperity today is the result of our incredible landscape, greenways and parks. We have a heavenly place in this state, the biological envy of the country. That’s what I call job creators.”

Does Earnhardt desire to enter politics? He has considered it and will not rule out the possibility.

In the meantime, he will continue to serve on numerous conservation and environmental boards. He also will be found fly fishing at the coast and in the mountains. And come winter, he will be duck hunting Down East with his buddies.