A man and his mountains

By Mary Ann Enloe | Apr 21, 2017
Photo by: Jennifer Braddish Marc Pruett is retiring from his day job as the Haywood County sediment and erosion control inspector. Bluegrass lovers will be glad to know he will continue with his music as a founding member of Balsam Range.

Environmentalist Marc Pruett, Haywood County's director of erosion and sediment control, has cleaned off his desk and packed up his work boots.

After 17 years protecting Haywood County's natural resources, Pruett retired Thursday, April 13.

"My parents need me.  There's just my brother and me and Dad's 93.  Mom is at Autumn Care and I need to be doing all I can for them.  I turned 65 in August of 2016 and it seemed like this was just the right time. I'm going to do some part time work, and of course I have my hobbies," said Canton native Marc Pruett the day before he retired.

Unless one is from Mars, everyone who knows about bluegrass music knows about the hobby the soft-spoken Marc Pruett is talking about.  A Grammy award winning banjo player (for his work with headliner Ricky Skaggs), Pruett teamed up about 10 years ago with Buddy Melton, Darren Nicholson, Caleb Smith and Tim Surrett and formed a musical phenomenon they named "Balsam Range." All five musicians call Haywood Count home and the same five still write and record chart-topping bluegrass music together.

Pruett's low-key demeanor was one of his assets in his inspector's job.  Seems folks don't like to be told they're not in compliance with state laws and county ordinances, and that the non-compliance will probably cost them some money.

Pruett understands the importance of communications skills in a job like his.

"Good water is a blessing and a curse," said Pruett.  "I was inspecting a subdivision a few years and  found three or four pretty serious infractions.  Well, that man came in my office just flying mad.  I listened to him yell at me about how I was holding up his project and all that.  When he finished, I explained why I had to do what I had to do, and why it was right for us to do those things.  I said, 'We have to protect our water sources.  I'm working to protect the very resources you're offering for sale.  We're both on the same side of this.' He studied a minute, nodded and said, 'well, you're right, when I think about it that way'.  We shook hands, he corrected the infractions and that was that."

"If you do good things for the right reason," Pruett continued,"...you get the right kind of progress."

Haywood County established its own Soil Erosion Department in 1988, rather than report directly to the state.

"It was a good decision," Pruett said.  "Hayood County wanted a kinder, gentler regulatory agency with emphasis on customer service and that has been my philosophy.  I like to pick up the phone and try to solve the problem."

His department oversees the county's slope ordinance, too.

"A lot of people think I'm the soil and water police, handing out tickets.  I don't have that authority.  Although my title is director of the department, the ordinance describes me as an 'inspector.'  Fines are levied by the Haywood County Sediment Control Board.  They have the power," he said.

Chairman of that board is businessman Ron Leatherwood, with James Ferguson, farmer and businessman, serving as vice chairman.  Other members are county commissioner and land surveyor Kevin Ensley, contractor Shane Valliere and Charles Boyd, a former educator who owns a landscaping business.  The alternate member is Bill Yarborough from Soil and Water Conservation District.  All are Haywood County residents.  The Board of County Commissioners appoints everybody but the district's Yarborough.  Regulations mandate that one sediment control board member must be a county commissioner.

"The Sediment Control Board decides on any fines or actions based on my department's findings," said Pruett.

Department change
Things changed Monday.  It was decided last year that the work of the county's Erosion and Sediment Department would be streamed into the planning department under the direction of County Planner Kris Boyd.

"Ira Dove (county manager) told us last year that the budget year we're in now will be our department's last budget," explained Pruett.  "We will no longer be a stand-alone department."

After a recent county commissioners' meeting in which the departmental consolidation was discussed, Kris Boyd told The Mountaineer that he hoped to be able to "pick Mrc's brain."

"I'm hoping I can talk him into doing some contract work for us.  I don't pretend to know all Marc knows about this," he said at the time.

Pruett had already announced his retirement.

When asked about the change, Pruett replied, "The propensity in Haywood County government now is toward consolidation."

Pruett's roots run deep in these mountains.  His alma mater,Western Carolina University, bestowed an honorary doctorate degree upon him for his work in perpetuating the heritage and music of the Appalachians.  Recently he was honored with a North Carolina Heritage Award for similar reasons.

When Pruett says Haywood County and these mountains are his home, he means they're his home.  He's been an avid environmentalist his entire life.  When he talks about protecting natural resources for future generations, it's easy to catch his enthusiasm.

Pruett often mentions Haywood County's unique position as a headwaters:

"We all know that no water runs into Haywood County.  It all flows out.  So it's our responsibility to be good stewards of that water source and protect it for future generations," he said. "We live in a beautiful place and we all need to work together to take care of it.  If folks conduct their development activities in such a way that we can defend them when we get complaints, it makes it so much easier for us and for the  people.If the site is permitted and in compliance, everybody wins."

A modest, good-natured and gentle man, Marc Pruett is one of those folks people like to be around.  That was proven Wednesday afternoon when co-workers gathered at his office to say goodbye over punch and cookies.

Popping in before the festivities began, Canton native and retired Square D Human Resources Director Richard Hurley, himself a mountain musician, wished Pruett well and reminded him that as a young radio DJ, Hurley was one of the first to play Pruett's music over the airwaves.

What's next

So what's the first thing on Pruett's retirement agenda?  A European tour with Balsam Range.  May 18 will find the bluegrass five setting up their equipment in Buhl, Germany.  After more stops in Germany and a swing through Switzerland, it's on to Prague in the Czech Republic and then back home to Haywood.

"We've left a day or two open so we can see some things.  Usually when we travel, we don't have time to do that," he said.

Pruett's wife, Anita, will accompany him.

"Anita's sort of been in my shadow all these years, and you know what a good musician she is herself.  She was a full-time mother to Zack and Callie while I worked two or three jobs at a time and played music. It hasn't been easy for her, and I want her to enjoy this," he said.

Anita Pruett works with Haywood County's Department of Social Services now, but she sang and played banjo with regional bluegrass favorites Whitewater Bluegrass Company until the children came along.  The Pruett offspring have pursued higher education — Zack earned a master's degree and is a college instructor and newly-married Callie is now a resident of Texas and is pursuing a master's degree in human rights and works in offices of Texas political candidates.

"I hope Anita has fun on this trip," Pruett said with a chuckle Wednesday.  "Balsam Range has never done a road trip like this one, and we don't know quite what to expect."
The retired environmentalist defines himself as a 'peacemaker and problem solver.'  That may come in handy as Marc Pruett yodels his way across the Alps with Haywood County's favorite sons.