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Horse Savior Defends Coastal Region

November 12, 2006

By Jerry Allegood, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Nov. 12–BETTIE — For a book-loving, retired librarian who doesn’t care much for activism and public speaking, Carolyn Mason does a lot of both.

She has done it for the wild horses of Shackleford Banks that have roamed an undeveloped island in Carteret County for generations. When the hardy herds were threatened by overpopulation and federal policy that would evict them from Cape Lookout National Seashore, Mason helped organize a foundation to manage the horses in their historic coastal range.

“They had been over there forever,” says Mason, who grew up in the small mainland community of Marshallberg. “We just felt like they had a right to be living there.”

Now Mason, 63, is trying to preserve the heritage of eastern Carteret County, a broad swath of lowlands, creeks and villages that locals call Downeast. As co-chairwoman of the group Downeast Tomorrow, she has lobbied the county commissioners for a moratorium on large housing projects and pressed for measures to protect coastal waters from pollution.

It is a marsh grass-roots campaign that has spurred criticism from county officials, developers and even some independent-minded Downeast natives. But Mason says she learned early that when you speak in public, you have to really believe in what you are doing and know that “someone is going to call you a fool, no matter how sincere you are.

“Once I accepted that, especially with the horses, I don’t care if they call me an animal hugger, an idiot — I don’t care what they say — these horses are worth my taking the time,” she says.

She says that is her attitude about Downeast, too.

A credible advocate

Karen Amspacher, executive director of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum on Harkers Island, credits Mason with researching issues and fighting with facts, not just emotion. She says Mason took up for the horses when the relationship between local residents and the National Park Service was especially rocky.

Many Downeasters made no secret of resentment toward the National Park Service, the agency that manages Cape Lookout National Seashore on the barrier islands of Core and Shackleford banks. Having to give up fishing shacks on the remote islands in the 1980s particularly incensed residents whose ancestors had lived on the islands before storms drove them to the mainland.

Amspacher says Mason was able to work with local residents and park service officials. Her efforts helped win congressional approval of a law that insured that wild horses would have a place in the national seashore. Now the herd of 110 to 130 animals has to deal only with hurricanes, winter storms, disease and natural calamities.

“If it had not have been for Carolyn Mason’s tenacity and brainpower and commitment,” Amspacher says, “I shudder to think what would have happened.”

The debate over the future of Downeast Carteret County hasn’t been peaceful. Although Downeast Tomorrow’s request for a moratorium drew support from hundreds of people at county meetings, the board of commissioners rejected proposals to limit the size of housing projects and commercial strips. Opponents labeled moratorium supporters as extremists and socialists.

Mason’s co-chairman, Gerry Barrett of Atlantic, says Mason’s background as the wife and daughter of commercial fishermen gives her credibility when talking about the coast and its people. He says she is committed to protecting the culture and heritage of the area as well as the environment.

Mason and Barrett appear to be unlikely allies. He is a former Chatham County developer who moved to the Downeast community of Atlantic 3 1/2 years ago. He attends public meetings in casual clothes, wearing Crocs plastic shoes, his hair in a ponytail. One county commissioner who has sparred with Downeast Tomorrow called Barrett a “long-haired hippie from Chapel Hill.”

Simpler times

Mason was born in Goldsboro and reared in the Downeast area around creeks, boats, fish houses and docks. She recalls when children rambled freely under the supervision of countless neighbors. She and her playmates swam like otters, spending so much time in the water that her father teased that she would have barnacles like his fishing boat.

She recalls that people sat on porches then and talking was entertainment and education. She says that was how young people learned about their families and the community.

“A lot of them would start ‘Do you remember the time?’ ‘Did you hear about the time Grandpa did this?’ or ‘The time the whale came to shore’ or whatever,” she says. “It’s kind of like listening to local history.”

She says she took the village atmosphere for granted growing up but came to understand that it was worth preserving. She says she knows the area will change anytime someone builds a house.

“We just said slow it down, plan it and manage it in such a way that it doesn’t destroy the very character of the old Downeast,” she says.

Mason worked as a librarian at area Marine Corps bases for 30 years and still loves to settle down with a book. She is partial to biography, history and historical fiction. She writes poetry sprinkled with imagery of sound, sea and salt air, of boat builders and horses.

She is not entirely bookish, though. Although she doesn’t ride horses, she tends to several, some permanent and others temporary boarders from Shackleford that are waiting to be adopted. She laughingly recalls transporting a foal to a veterinarian in Raleigh in the back seat of her Lincoln Town Car. Travelers sometimes slowed or stopped at the spectacle of the wobbly-legged youngster staring out the car window.

Mason has traveled extensively in the U.S. and Europe, but her favorite trip is a boat ride to the barrier islands beneath the beam of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

“I love to go out there in the early morning when [the water] is still slick and come around that corner and there stands that big diamond lighthouse,” she says. “It’s like that’s who I am, that’s who we are.”

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Copyright (c) 2006, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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