How did I become an environmentalist who doesn’t trust environmental agencies and organizations? It took a lifetime...
a child, I spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s house in a small
coal mining town in West Virginia. Marmet is a “company” town where
much of the housing and employment are controlled by the mine owners.
The other major employers are the chemical plants including the DuPont
chemical plant in nearby Belle.
Trains carrying coal rumbled by
daily and, although the tracks were off limits, I frequently made a mad
dash to snatch a piece of coal that bounced out of the open train cars.
There was a wealth of play potential in the black lumps. They were
light, so I could throw them at a target or, even better, maybe at one
of the many cousins who always seemed to be visiting. And the softer
ones made a great alternative to chalk for writing and drawing on
One of the highlights of my day was when my grandmother would allow me to throw out the garbage all by myself.
house was raised about five feet so that the creek that ran about three
feet away wouldn’t flood it when the water was high. After it passed
the house, the creek disappeared into a culvert and eventually made it
into the Kanawha River.
Taking the trash out meant slinging
the paper bag over the porch railing into the creek so that the waters
could wash it away. Six decades ago, it was a common practice and
didn’t carry with it the same problems found today. Most households
generated little trash and garbage. Leftovers were eaten or fed to
livestock; glass jars containing vegetables, jelly, pickles and the
like were saved to use for next canning season; milk and soda bottles
were glass and were returned to the store to collect the deposits.
There was no plastic or excess packaging from already-prepared foods.
All the plumbing probably also drained into the creek.
sky was always blue and that didn’t seem unusual until I was older and
realized that the always-blue sky was my misunderstanding. It was the
air that was blue. There were few, if any, environmental regulations in
the ‘50s and the blue tinge was from the unregulated chemicals belched
out of DuPont’s smokestacks. There also was a foul smell but, as with
many odors, after a while, one ceases to smell it.
A couple of
decades passed before I began to think about the importance of
protecting the environment. Villager dresses, circle pins and loafers
were replaced with mini-skirts and tall boots. When I finally became
interested in nature and natural resources, I had graduated to long
skirts, blue jeans, hiking boots and flannel shirts.
many, with three young children and a lot of work that came with living
in the mountains of Colorado, I depended on environmental organizations
for news about the environment. If they stated something as fact,
initially, I never questioned it. But as my understanding of science
and environmental politics expanded, I found myself fact-checking
newsletters and releases to see if they were accurate – often they were
misleading. But I gave them the benefit of the doubt – perhaps the
writer had misunderstood the topic.
Because of my understanding
environmental science and the related law, as a journalist, I often was
assigned stories about environment and government agencies that are
tasked with its protection.
One particular story showed how devoid of fact that some government environmental agencies’ statements are.
large number of dead turtles washed up on Corolla’s beach and drew the
attention of the National Marine Fisheries Service. A statement was
issued that it was thought to be caused by commercial fishing vessels
because one was seen in the vicinity the day before the turtles were
discovered. Also noted was that the turtles were sent to the state vet
school for further study.
The necropsy results showed many had
died from a wasting disease. And a large number of them had hook and
lines in their stomachs or wrapped around their bodies. I asked why
NMFS had not corrected the earlier statement and was told that the
hook-and-line deaths were probably caused by anglers fishing from piers
and inadvertently catching the turtles. The answer was a mind-blower –
“Because they can’t help it and can only cut the line to get it off the
pole.” They left the public with the impression that commercial
fishermen were responsible for the deaths, although they knew otherwise.
took a break from journalism to work for the North Carolina Fisheries
Association as vice president of communications at the beginning of the
work on the State’s Fisheries Reform Act. Part of my job was to visit
with commercial fishing groups along the coast to find out what was
acceptable to them and tell them how to get their voices heard.
Because the fisheries vary along the coast, the ideas were broad
– except for one item that was universal. The watermen knew more
regulations were coming and they wanted the biggest problems addressed
– loss of habitat, wetlands and declining water quality.
more than a year, all the environmental groups in the state agreed and
vowed to back the request. It made environmental sense. After a lot of
hard work by a lot of smart people, the draft legislation was sent to
mark-up before being introduced in the General Assembly.
represented the commercial industry at the mark-up session. Lobbyists
and/or directors of every major environmental group in the state were
at the table. Together, we reviewed the bill’s language and there were
no surprises until we got to the part about the creation and
implementation of Coastal Habitat Protection Plans to address the loss
of habitat, wetlands and water quality. As previously agreed, it was
included in the draft legislation, but there was no effective date for
the plans. It just noted that the plans were to be developed and
implemented – at some point. Thinking it was just an error, I quickly
noted that the “hammer” was missing. It was so open-ended that the
state could wait a century before giving thought to it.
was absolute silence for several minutes. Finally, Bill Holman, later
the director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, simply said,
“You’re right.” My impression was that Bill also was unhappy with the
I didn’t stop arguing for it to be corrected but no
one responded except for the attorney who drafted the bill. She said
that if an effective date was added, the General Assembly wouldn’t
The combined members of all the organizations at the
table had enough strength to get just about anything we collectively
wanted. I finally realized that the environmental groups had traded
“the hammer” for something else that they wanted and weren’t going to
share just what that something was.
More than 10 years later
when the Coastal Habitat Protection Plans finally became a reality, one
of the environmental groups sent out a letter-to-the-editor taking
credit for getting the plans. Of course, there was no mention of the
fact that they had contributed to causing them to be delayed by a
Environmental groups can and have had positive influence
but often misstate the facts, usually to create the impression of a
looming crisis. As groups have grown larger and larger, much of the
effort has shifted from the core mission of helping to protect the
environment to fund-raising to obtain revenues needed to pay the tab
for growing administration cost. An easily provable fact is that if
there is not a perceived crisis, donations are lower.
newspaper adage that’s rarely said aloud anymore – although still
frequently followed – is “If it bleeds, it leads. If it doesn’t bleed,
cut it with a knife.” The same can be attributed to some of the
nonprofit environmental groups that go to extremes to make situations
sound 10 times more critical than they are. And they refuse to accept
that the fact that humans are part of nature.
Little more than a
decade ago, King Cove, Alaska, residents asked for permission to extend
a dirt road through the wildlife refuge to Cold Bay. The refuge cuts
off King Cove residents’ access to hospitals that can take care of
critically ill or injured patients. The only options available to reach
the hospitals were by boat or helicopter, both nonstarters when the
weather is bad. Environmentalists, backed by former Vice President Al
Gore, stopped a bill which would have allowed clearing the last seven
miles needed to reach Cold Bay. The road was to be for emergency use
only but the environmentalists argued that it would destroy habitat
needed by wildlife.
The late Sen. Ted Stevens was so outraged
that he managed to get millions in appropriations to add a clinic, a
new airstrip and other improvements to try to help solve the problem.
For a while, ferries were put into service but that ended a couple of
years ago because of extremely high maintenance cost and because they
also were shut down in bad weather.
King Cove’s population is
about 1,000, half of whom are indigenous Native Americans. Last year,
they went back to Congress and again asked for permission to build the
emergency-use-only road because there have been more than 10 deaths
that could possibly have been prevented if they had had proper level of
medical care. Again, because of the influence of environmental
organizations, the answer has been no. I have to wonder how anyone who
would fight to save a salamander couldn’t do the same for a human
The fight continues over replacing the Bonner Bridge
and ensuring access to Hatteras Island. Whether the replacement should
be beside the existing bridge or go into the sound has become a
circuitous argument. But the continued suggestion that ferries should
be the preferred option has been consistent for decades. If the groups
don’t understand why that won’t work, they need only to look at their
own handiwork in King Cove – Defenders of Wildlife has a hand in each.
And to say that man shouldn’t be living on the island is about 400
years too late. He does and he is part of that environment. There can
be solutions that take humans into consideration.
negative impacts from the off-road vehicle rules are not only ignored,
they are the subject of many out-and-out lies. For the past few years,
the increasing amount of occupancy tax collected has been used to try
to say that shutting off miles of beach to vehicles and pedestrians has
increased business on Hatteras Island. That is not true and the tax
collected only reflects how much is charged. Increases in tax rates,
increases in rental prices, IRS mandates to start taxing services such
as bike rentals, linens and cribs and other such items are reflected in
the taxes collected. The amount is not an indicator of how many visit
I choose to live in an area surrounded by a National
Wildlife Refuge because I love nature. I have a strong belief that
everything around us is a gift from God and that we have a moral
responsibility to take care of it, appreciate it and to ensure its
Man can be and often is destructive if left to his
own devices so while many are advocating that regulations be done away
with, I know that we must rein in activities that destroy this gift. At
the same time, God made man as part of this nature world and that, too,
must be acknowledged. In many ways, it is difficult to decide which is
worse – over reaching environmental groups or groups that think there
should be no controls. They are both doing damage to nature that
There are solutions but to get to them, the
rhetoric and self-serving power struggles have to be put to the side.
There are solutions, but it is going to take those of us in the middle
to find them.
I would like to find a solution that would allow
Marmet residents to continue to earn a living while being able to truly
see blue sky instead of blue air and breathe clean air instead of coal
(Sandy Semans Ross is a retired journalist and former editor of the Outer Banks Sentinel You can read more of her blogs at http://www.sunshineOBX.blogspot.com.)
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