Colburn Fights for Waterways

Alum Kevin Colburn advocates for preservation and recreation

Name a Western North Carolina river, and it’s likely that Kevin Colburn has played a role in its conservation.

The 1998 UNC Asheville graduate has negotiated for rivers and streams for 12 years as part of American Whitewater, a stalwart advocate for the preservation and protection of waterways throughout the United States. Now national stewardship director of the Cullowhee-based nonprofit, Colburn joined the organization when he was just 25 years old.

It’s a path that began at UNC Asheville, where he focused on environmental studies and conducted undergraduate research at the Tallulah Wetlands. 

“That was absolutely a formative experience,” said Colburn, who is based in Missoula, Mont. “Not many undergrads get paid for three years to do work that is related to the field they’re studying.”

Raised near Biglerville, Pa., Colburn’s decision to attend UNC Asheville was shaped as much by the region’s recreational opportunities as his academic goals. When he looked at the environmental programs available in southern Appalachia, UNC Asheville stood out. “It just seemed idyllic, and it was,” Colburn said. 

In 1995, he and Leland Davis ’97 founded the UNC Asheville Paddling Club. Colburn estimates he taught at least 100 people how to roll a kayak in the campus pool. The club’s adviser, Associate Professor of Economics Chris Bell, would later join the board of American Whitewater, as would Davis. And it was while working at the Tallulah Wetlands that Colburn would meet his wife, Mamie Smith Colburn ’00.

After graduation, Colburn moved west, earning a master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Montana. Impressed with his academic work, American Whitewater hired him as their eastern conservation and access associate. Upon returning to Asheville, he quickly immersed himself in dam re-licensings and other projects involving rivers such as the Nantahala, Tuckasegee, Chattooga, Catawba and Cheoah.

These days, he’s planning a move back to Western North Carolina, where he’s working on the forest planning for the Nantahala National Forest, which could lead to new river protections under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. He’s also building grassroots support for getting “a pretty big roster” of waterways in Montana designated as National Wild and Scenic Rivers.  

“We could potentially be protecting hundreds of miles of streams,” said Colburn. “It’s a pretty amazing opportunity.”