MountainTrue // Into Nature

Josh Kelly, a Public Lands Biologist at MountainTrue, tells us more about his work protecting forests of the Southern Blue Ridge.


As a part of the Into Nature Sale (May 17 – May 27), Astral is donating 5% of sales to three non-profit organizations that are working to protect soil and water. One of these organizations is MountainTrue.

MountainTrue champions resilient forests, clean waters, and healthy communities in the Southern Blue Ridge. Considering our deep roots in Appalachia (Astral began on a biodynamic farm just outside of Asheville), we are proud to support MountainTrue’s works to protect the entire ecosystem of soil + water that is extremely close to our heart.

Josh measures a 224 year-old white oak proposed for cutting in Nantahala National Forest. Photo by Patrick Hunter.

ASTRAL //  You were born and raised in Appalachia. Tell us more about your roots. What made Josh Kelly Josh Kelly?

 I was born in Madison County to a couple of idealistic back-to-the-landers. My parents bought land in a remote area of Spring Creek, bought a sawmill to mill the lumber for their house and buildings, kept horses to ride around the farm, and raised tobacco with the help of neighbors, all while holding down other jobs. I had many interesting neighbors growing up, from multi-generational Appalachian farmers, to biologists that had dropped out of regular society. Eventually my parents split up and moved out of the mountains, so I also got a taste of suburban life in the more racially diverse area of Chapel Hill, NC.

ASTRAL //  Tell us a bit more about MountainTrue, what work happens there?

MountainTrue is an environmental advocacy nonprofit. That means that our biggest responsibility is to hold the government and corporations accountable for their treatment of the environment. We have several programs including Clean Water, Land Use, Public Lands, and the Creation Care Alliance. The Clean Water team is our largest and they monitor and prevent pollution in five river basins in the Blue Ridge. I lead our Public Lands program, where we are a voice for ecological stewardship of the 1.8 million acres of public land in Western North Carolina. Our Land Use team works with citizens and local governments to prevent sprawl, gentrification, and to keep incompatible development from impacting our forests, farmlands, and communities. The Creation Care Alliance is a coalition of faith-based groups that advocates for sound stewardship of the environment.

ASTRAL //  What are the primary concerns facing Blue Ridge forests right now?

The biggest threat to Blue Ridge forests are the economic incentives that favor development and resource extraction over the long-term health of the land. Both development and resource extraction require road construction, which fragments habitat, brings in a host of problems from non-native invasive plants, and causes sedimentation, which is the most serious threat to water quality and aquatic wildlife we face. Another huge threat is novel pests and pathogens that are often brought in by the horticultural trade. That pretty non-native azalea that people want in their yard might just carry sudden oak death. Hemlock wooly adelgid was introduced when people wanted to grow beautiful Japanese hemlocks in their landscaping. Chestnut Blight has already laid waste to the American Chestnut and Emerald Ash Borer is decimating ash trees. Unfortunately, more non-native plants and pests are surely on their way because we, as a society, are not willing to regulate the industries that introduce them.

ASTRAL //  Share something good that’s happened in conservation recently.

Even in the face of big losses, there have been some big wins for conservation recently. Local land trusts are doing incredible work in the Blue Ridge to conserve land, and they are doing it at an impressive clip, with the average year seeing several thousand acres being permanently conserved. Another positive change for conservation has been the increasing awareness of fire as an important ecological process necessary for many of our native plants and animals to thrive. Each year, local conservation organizations seem to do a little more controlled burning, which is working wonders to restore and maintain pine and oak forests. The Inflation Reduction Act (2022) was the most consequential piece of climate change legislation in history. It is accelerating the pace of clean energy deployment and is driving the innovations we need to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Most of the incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are directed at home owners and business owners. If you are in one of those categories, you can benefit while also doing your part.

ASTRAL //  How can an everyday, regular human help?

The best way everyday humans can help forests and other environmental problems is to be involved in the civic life of your community. None of us are safe until all of us are safe, and I include the environment in “us”. People need to be cared for and connected to nature to protect it. That means providing housing for people is an important environmental need, too. One issue MountainTrue is focussed on is plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is one of the great threats of our time, with the average person consuming a credit card’s worth of plastic and all its toxic chemicals every month. MountainTrue has been pushing for a single use plastic ban in Buncombe County. This will require overturning state law, which requires political action. 

ASTRAL //  What does a day in your life look like?

If it is one of the days when I’m lucky to work outside, it could look like driving to a remote part of Pisgah or Nantahala National Forest and surveying an area proposed for logging to ensure that no rare wildlife, plants, or sensitive habitats would be damaged. On many of my work days I wake up, go to the YMCA, then head to the office for a day of video conferences, emails, phone calls, and administrative tasks.  

ASTRAL //  What is your preferred way to connect with nature?

I like to go on treasure hunts in nature. Whether that’s finding a hen of the woods mushroom, a gorgeous wildflower cove, a massive tree, or a wild trout doesn’t matter. The act of discovering hidden gems and knowing the landscape more intimately is deeply rewarding.

ASTRAL //  What is your favorite tree? Both species and actual, real life tree.

Wow, I get that question a lot, and it’s almost impossible to answer! For my favorite tree species, I’ll go with red mulberry. They have a graceful form and have strong, beautiful wood. Their berries come in early in the year, and they are delicious and feed people and wildlife alike. For my favorite tree, I’ll go with the Poke Patch tree in Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a tulip tree that is visible from the Fork Ridge Trail. It’s over 7′ in diameter and 179′ tall with a huge crown. It’s at least 250 years old, which is young for its size, and it’s growing incredibly fast. I find the vigor of the tree and the beauty of its surroundings inspiring.

ASTRAL //  Who are you most inspired by?

Right now I’m most inspired by my friend Gene Stockton. Gene is a true Appalachian mountain man that really knows these hills. He is an incredible woodsman, hunter, and angler. He is also one of the most fun, devoted, and reliable people I’ve ever met. I want to be like Gene when I grow up.

ASTRAL //  What’s your favorite song?

Adahs Way by Ali Levack

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