Lou Zeller’s Navigation of Environmental Advocacy, A Journey of Transformation and Impact

Life’s journey is often punctuated by pivotal moments that can unexpectedly alter the course of one’s path. The same is true for Lou Zeller, former Executive Director and current Strategic Advisor of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL), who underwent a transformative experience in 1969, coinciding with his enlistment in the Navy.

“It sounds a little funny, but I woke up and had an epiphany,” Lou reminisces. “I just had this ‘aha moment’ where I got up before dawn, marched into the offices of the Naval lieutenant, and said I can’t do this. I can’t kill. That was the beginning of a life-changing event.”

In a moment of profound realization, Lou awoke to a stark opposition between the tasks expected of him and his moral judgment. “I also became a conscientious objector in 1969, the same year I joined the Navy,” he recalls, reinforcing his commitment to standing up for his beliefs. This event marked the commencement of an important journey for Lou, underscoring the deep-seated commitment that has defined his lifelong dedication to environmental justice.

Pioneering Environmental Activism

Over his illustrious 30 year career in environmental defense, Lou has been a community advocate, actively engaging in and organizing various demonstrations, marches, and protests. His unwavering commitment revolves around safeguarding communities from exploitation by companies and industries that aim to introduce harmful elements in or around the environment where people reside, initially beginning with the defense of his own community in 1978.

“I was working and living in Western North Carolina in 1978, after finishing Physician Assistant school at Emory University. I was working at a small rural clinic, raising a family, and doing some farming on the land that I lived on when the Department of Energy Project of ‘92 was targeting various types of communities to take all the high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and find a dumpsite for it,” Lou recalls. “One of those 12 targeted sites was about 15 miles from my home in Madison County, North Carolina. We contacted BREDL, who was about 100 miles away, and they had the expertise and organizing capacity to work with groups like ours.”

Lou’s transformative encounter with BREDL propelled him into a dedicated life of environmental defense. This journey commenced with his acceptance of a job offer from the organization, marking the beginning of a series of impactful events. Lou actively engaged in environmental demonstrations in the following years, particularly notable for his participation in the protests against radioactive waste dumpsites in Barnwell, South Carolina, between 1979 and 1980. These demonstrations stood as a collective response to the environmental injustices associated with radioactive waste disposal. Further showcasing his commitment to social causes, he took part in the monumental 1982 anti-war march in New York City, where a million people flooded the streets, culminating in Central Park, to show support against the use of nuclear weaponry. Playing a pivotal role in mobilizing support, he organized a busload of participants from Asheville and Western North Carolina to attend the march alongside him. Concurrently, Lou was involved with Plowshares, a Christian pacifist organization that, during the same period, focused on various anti-war efforts, such as painting crosses at intersections as a creative and symbolic expression against the potential invasion of Nicaragua.

A Unique Approach

In discussing the role and significance of BREDL, the organization’s unique approach stands out to Lou. “It’s unique as a singular organization. I don’t know of another group that works the way we do. If there are some, I’d be happy!”

BREDL distinguishes itself by its collaborative and educational efforts. With two organizers on staff, the group focuses on teaching new activists and residents how to strategically address, publicize, organize, and harness their inherent power when confronting powerful opponents. “We work to alter the balance of power in the community’s favor,” Lou affirms.

BREDL’s commitment to community empowerment stems from the recognition that decisions on the siting of environmentally harmful facilities are not always for scientific reasons. “As we learned during our first fight with the radioactive waste dump, the decisions on where to site these facilities are not based on science. They try to justify it on those grounds, but it’s mainly a political decision. That’s why Madison County was chosen in the 80s,” he argues. “That’s where we come in to aid community groups that request help. We give them advisors and consultants, resources they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”

Lou highlights the organization’s responsive approach, where communities in need can reach out for support, emphasizing the importance of being physically present to address their concerns effectively. “People call us and say, ‘Can you come help?’ and we say, ‘When can you meet? Are your neighbors interested in this issue, too? Have them come along.’ That’s how we spend a lot of time in our communities because there is no substitute for being there,” he says.

The financial resources allocated by BREDL go toward essential elements such as telephones, salaries, and mileage, ensuring that community groups receive the necessary expertise and experience tailored to their specific needs.

Boots on the Ground

Discussing the essence of “boots on the ground” efforts, Lou emphasizes that the universal need for these community groups is strategy. “If they’re a group of farmers, homemakers, academics, or business people, many of them already have experience organizing community events, but relatively few have experience dealing with an environmental issue that they are confronted with,” Lou notes. “The first thing that people will need, whether they know it or not, is strategy. You can work very hard, day and night, getting organizers in your community to work on something, but if you’re only following in your own strategy, it might not lead anywhere.”

Recognizing that many groups may have experience organizing community events but need more expertise in handling environmental challenges, BREDL adopts a hands-on approach. The organization collaborates with groups, understanding their specific goals and initiating immediate work within the context of their issues.

In the realm of environmental advocacy, the significance of BREDL’s assistance in public relations cannot be overstated. The way a community presents its argument holds the power to shape perceptions and influence impactful change. “One of my favorite metaphors for when we are teaching people to write professional newspapers or professional work is when they tell me they’ve reached out to newspapers and that no one came. I say, ‘Well, why would a journalist come if you don’t have any news? If you were to write a press release about King Kong, you wouldn’t start with the handsome sea captain! The first line of your press release is, ‘Today, King Kong fell off the Empire State Building,’” he laughs, emphasizing the importance of BREDL’s support in ensuring a clear and meaningful press release.

Meaningful Moments

In 1992, Lou received a call from a member of the Cherokee tribe that marked a pivotal moment for him. “He was trying to put together a march in downtown Cherokee, North Carolina, to stop a commercial trash dump from being built on his reservation,” Lou recalls. “He said, ‘Can you be in Cherokee? I said yes, we can be there, and we can even share our homemade ‘No Mega Dump’ banners.’” At that time, the local government was veering towards an agreement with a commercial trash company, posing a threat to the reservation. Over the subsequent seven years, Lou successfully campaigned not only to thwart the waste dump in Cherokee, but also to restore the Lloyd Welch constitution, a previous governing document that would have prevented the trash dump, fostering a more democratic and respectful environment for tribal members.

Despite this victory, BREDL later faced opposition to a stance on the gaming industry’s plan to construct a casino in Cherokee on that same reservation, which proved unsuccessful. This experience underscored a lesson for Lou that even when efforts align with principles, success is not guaranteed. “You can do everything right and still lose, but if you don’t do anything, you will certainly lose,” he says.

Lou’s dedication to making an impact extends beyond the realms of environmental defense, extending to the community of people he has touched. When asked to reflect on BREDL’s growth over time, Lou says, “It’s wonderful. I’m filling out holiday cards, and I have scores of people that I keep up with, some of whom we worked with for decades. We still have members of our board who go back 30 years and more. The organization that we have established has that kind of longevity.”

For Lou, the impact extends not only to the tangible successes in environmental advocacy but also to the enduring connections and community that stand as a testament to the legacy he strives to create. “I have a letter from a woman in Wilson County, North Carolina, from 2020, thanking us profusely for providing the power and the vision that she could stop the natural gas pipeline that was slated to come into her community,” he says. “We didn’t stop the pipeline for them like a lawyer would do; our people only provided the expertise and leadership. Those seeds have been planted for the last 40 years, not only for the immediate campaign but for the next one in the future. That’s the organization I want to leave behind. Our founder, Janet Marsh, said, ‘One person speaking alone may not be heard, but many people speaking with one voice cannot be ignored.’ She said that in 1984, at the first public meeting of BREDL. This still guides our program on a day-to-day basis.”

To support the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, please visit https://bredl.org/.