Upstate Forever paddling upstream against a river of sprawl

Brad Wyche took up the mantel as The Lorax of the Upstate 15 years ago in a quest to stem the sprawl that creeps along the spokes that extend from Greenville, the city he’s always called home.

Wyche doesn’t speak with the “bossy” demands of the character coined in the Dr. Seuss children’s book. His tone is measured, his manner more that of cooperative negotiator, but like the Lorax, Wyche strives to preserve the forests and waterways for future generations.

Much of what is great about the Upstate’s outdoors can be traced to the Wyche name. His father, Tommy, worked tirelessly to protect from development the blue wall of mountains that rises to Greenville’s north. His late mother, Harriet, championed the construction of Falls Park on the Reedy.

And just as Wyche started the fledgling nonprofit conservation organization, Upstate Forever, in 1998, he orchestrated the purchase of an overgrown and abandoned railroad line that he hoped to turn into a paved bicycle trail – the Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail.

In its first 15 years, Wyche has guided Upstate Forever as founder and executive director of the first land trust and regional environmental advocacy organization in the Upstate.

In that time, the group has seen nearly 18,000 acres of what he terms “special places” permanently conserved from development. They’ve worked to clean the Reedy and Saluda rivers and to protect Lake Greenwood from harmful algae blooms. They’ve encouraged building sustainable, walkable communities as hubs of activity with networks of trails and parks.

And yet, Wyche said, they’re paddling upstream against a river of sprawl in an attempt to keep Greenville from a development pattern that has plagued many Southeastern cities.

“We’ve won lots of battles, but honestly, we’re still losing the war,” Wyche said.

So the group’s work continues, inches along really, as its 20-person staff with offices in Greenville and Spartanburg works behind the scenes to urge government entities to adopt transformative growth policies little-by-little.

The organization has been credited for its non-combative tactics and thorough research that have brought a shift in how many residents view protecting the Upstate’s natural resources.

“Brad, and all the folks at Upstate Forever, understand that folks in the Upstate are independent-minded and they respect that,” said Butch Kirven, Greenville County councilman, who served as County Council chairman during much of Upstate Forever’s existence. “They’re not very coercive in their approach.”

“We welcome their input,” Kirven said. “They’re well informed and passionate about keeping the Upstate as beautiful as possible.”

Deep roots

The roots of Upstate Forever stretch deep into the soil of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Wyche hiked, backpacked and canoed throughout his childhood in the mountains with his father, whom Wyche credits with developing his interest in the environment.

“He inspired me at an early age to get involved in environmental work,” Wyche said. That inspiration led him to study environmental science as an undergraduate at Princeton, then to pursue a master’s in natural resources management from Yale. He then went to law school at the University of Virginia and found his way back to Greenville to work in the family law firm.

As a lawyer, he concentrated in environmental fields and took on all of Wyche Law Firm’s environmental cases.

“I really did enjoy being an attorney for many, many years,” Wyche said. “It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that I started to not get a lot of satisfaction out of the day-to-day law business. Plus, I was very concerned about what was happening in the Upstate with growth and land-use change. Still am.

“Dad was focused on the mountains, but for the rest of the Upstate there was no land trust program available for conservation-minded property owners. That was a real void. And nobody was talking about it.”

Wyche had always loved the Reedy River. He’d walked from its headwaters to its delta and canoed it as well. In 1993, he and some friends founded the membership-based, non-profit Friends of the Reedy River, which coordinated cleanup efforts along Greenville’s river.

That foray into environmental non-profit work prepared him to start Upstate Forever five years later. He agonized over the decision because he knew it meant leaving the family law practice.

His wife, Diane Smock, a former Greenville city councilwoman, encouraged him to go for it. So on Sept. 1, 1998, he became Upstate Forever’s executive director.

“Instead of leaving the house and driving to the law firm, I just walked down the hall to my office and started my new life,” he said.

He knew the organization needed member support to survive and thrive, but he was unsure if there would be enough interest from conservationists and nature lovers to support him.

He crafted a first newsletter — the Upstate Advocate — on tri-color yellow, green and white print. He wrote about a need for sensible growth and urged the region to expand zoning.

“I didn’t quite go through the entire phone book, but pretty close,” Wyche said. “I sent it to friends, family, distant cousins, former clients, acquaintances.

“I’ll never forget going to the post office about three days after the newsletter went out and I pulled the box and there were about 300 membership envelopes. That’s when I knew Upstate Forever was going to succeed.”

Projects unfold

Wyche sat in his Pettigru Street office — a LEED Platinum and Earthcraft-certified remodeled 1916 two-story house — and ticked off a list of “greatest hits” tacked to the wall.

They’ve signed 89 conservation agreements with landowners to protect nearly 18,000 acres, including Stumpouse Mountain in Oconee County, Nine Times Tract in Pickens County, mountain tracts along Highway 11 in the Blue Ridge Escarpment and numerous farm and forest lands across the region.

They’ve advocated for cleanup and dam removal on the Twelve Mile River and successfully opposed a major landfill in Spartanburg County.

They’ve advocated for hospitality taxes in Greenville and Spartanburg counties and limits on nutrients in the Saluda and Reedy rivers. They’ve been successful in advocating for local laws to protect trees, leave buffers along rivers, cluster developments to save green space and, most recently, to create a stormwater bank as an incentive for developers to reduce runoff.

Upstate Forever’s first major achievement was to urge Greenville County to purchase the abandoned rail line, which the county did in 1999.

Wyche had seen rails-to-trails projects elsewhere and knew this was the only chance to build a trail connection from Travelers Rest through Furman University and down to Greenville and beyond.

“If the county wasn’t going to buy it, the railroad company could sell it off in pieces and you’d have no chance of putting in a 15-mile bike trail,” Wyche said.

It took years to litigate and then build the Swamp Rabbit Trail, which officially opened in 2010, but Wyche said even he, who knew what it could be from the beginning, is astounded at its impact.

Smart growth

Wyche is tall and thin with distinctive features and dark hair that looks much as it did in 1998. He lacks only the glasses he wore then in a photo of the first board of directors.

Mark Taylor was also in that first board of directors’ photo. Taylor owns SynTerra, a Greenville-based engineering and science consulting firm, and has been on the board for all 15 years.

Taylor said the organization has chosen to avoid inflammatory issues that could garner more attention (and potentially more dues-paying members) in favor of research and coordination with governmental agencies to bring about measured changes. It’s been, at times, “painfully slow” work, Taylor said.

Katherine Kransteuber, program coordinater at Furman’s Shi Center for Sustainability, said Upstate Forever has built a positive perception in a conservative region because its marketed message that sustainable growth is fiscally smart has resonated.

“When you’re in a red state, so to speak, the way the information is presented has to be a little bit different,” Kransteuber said. “You can’t just rely on people’s interest in the environment to make them want to do these things.”

It’s wise for an environmental nonprofit in our area to understand which exact environmental issues are most important to the people in the region and then to tailor programs based on those issues, she said.

“It’s a marketing issue more than anything,” she said.

Upstate Forever’s research and expertise has made it welcome to the discussion of how the county grows and protects its resources, Kirven said.

Greenville Mayor Knox White said the city has a “compatible agenda” to Upstate Forever, from walkable communities with parks and trails to river cleanup and smart development patterns.

“His (Wyche’s) organization came around at a time that the moment was right for someone to be speaking to a broad audience in Greenville about how we deal with growth,” White said. “I think that has a huge appeal across political boundaries and speaks to people in Greenville.”

Upstate Forever’s work hasn’t gone without stumbles. They’ve pushed for more zoning in the region, sometimes with spectacular failure, like in Laurens County, when a county referendum to institute zoning was defeated by a wide margin in 2002.

“I naively thought it had a real chance of passing,” he said. “So we got really involved in supporting that effort down there, and it was crushed by the voters.”

What did they learn from that approach?

“We are still going to talk about and promote zoning as one of the transformative policies, but we know the difficulty in this conservative region of that happening on a widespread basis any time soon,” he said.

They’ve learned to couch arguments in fiscal terms. They stress how a tree canopy will attract business, how smart traffic patterns can keep the air cleaner to allow businesses to expand or relocate here, or how the Swamp Rabbit Trail has begun to build its own trail-based economy with cafes and shops.

A catalyst for change

When Wyche has 10 seconds to explain what Upstate Forever does, he says this: “We’re trying to keep our wonderful Upstate region from becoming another Atlanta.”

While Atlanta has a lot going for it, its growth pattern is “horrendous,” Wyche said.

“Most people in the Upstate have experienced Atlanta, and we can learn from Atlanta’s mistakes,” he said.

Is the Upstate on the path away from or toward Atlanta’s development patterns?

Consider a study done by the Clemson University’s Strom Thurmond Institute in 2008.

It used computer modeling and census data to model what the Upstate will look like by 2030 at its current rate of development. In 2000, the Upstate had 576,000 developed acres. By 2030, developed acres would triple to 1.5 million.

The pace of sprawl is most concerning, Wyche said. Development is expected to outpace population growth by 5 to 1, meaning 86 acres a day are paved over.

If the Upstate could reduce the development rate — through infill and revitalization of previously developed land — to a 3 to 1 rate, it would reduce developed acres by 25 percent, or 380,000, by 2030.

“Our rate of sprawl, our rate of consuming land and paving it over, is still way too high,” Wyche said.

Wyche said he accepts that growth is coming and welcomes it as a sign of a vibrant region.

“We will have another 300,000 people here in the next 20 to 25 years,” he said. “It’s a good problem to have.”