Friday, May 18, 2007

A Trampled State Fights Back

I've lived in NC almost my whole life. My dad used to tell me that North Carolina was the "best place in the world" and he meant it. He loved the trees, he loved the forested mountains, he loved the wild coast. I grew up savoring these things too. In college at UNC, I studied mountain salamanders, because our state has more species than anywhere else on the continent. But as the years have passed and I've raised my own kids here, I've watched our state undergo accelerating development. I've watched NC offer every enticement to corporations willing to plunder our assets and toss us a few crumbs. We offer low taxes, cheap labor, cheap land, few environmental restrictions, and lax enforcement of pollution laws to any corporation willing to farm or build a factory - regardless of what fraction of the profits are fed into faraway stockholder pockets instead of into local communities.

I don't know what my dad would think now.

Our mountain hardwood forests are being clear-cut, replaced by loblolly pine plantations - thanks to International Paper and other multi-national corporations that send the profits to shareholders outside the state. As the forests fall, they take with them our unrivaled mountain biodiversity. The coast has been ravaged too: our coastal plain is currently home to 10 million hogs on factory farms - more than any other state except Iowa. Most of these hogs are courtesy of Smithfield, a company growing more notorious every day for labor abuses and the environmental degradation associated with 10-acre hog-waste lagoons. Then there's Duke Energy: the air for our forests and for our children's lungs is among the nation's foulest, thanks in large part to Duke's affinity for coal-fired power plants.

It's hard to love a land that has somehow gone belly-up in submission, offering its life blood and its most precious assets to any exploitive industry that wanders in. The timber industry, the textile industry, the meat industry, the coal utilities have all had their way with our land and resources. All of these industries have exploited and degraded our environment, have exploited laborers (we are the least unionized state in the country), and exploited our animals too - both wild and farmed ones.

But something new is happening here - resistance is swelling. The ground is beginning to tremble. Just a few years ago I had the feeling that interest in conservation was almost nonexistent in Charlotte. Has there been an influx of new people? Is the growing worldwide concern about global warming, toxic food, depleted fisheries starting to frighten people into action? What is is? People here are getting active.

I drove to the coast last weekend to Sierra Fest, the state Sierra Club convention. On the way we passed hundreds of homes with "No OLF" signs in the yard. A few weeks ago there were public hearings all around the state about the Navy's efforts to get in on the gang bang of NC and build an Outlying Landing Field next to our Poccosin Wildlife Refuge - a plan that would have threatened habitat for millions of migrating waterfowl and other wildlife. People all over the state said hell no, and now the U.S. Senate has passed legislation to repeal authorization for the landing field. Amazing!

A similar outpouring of irate folks shouted "No" to Duke Energy, at public hearings for their proposed 2 new coal plants. The NC utility commission, on the basis of strong community resistance, denied permission for one of them.

Last night I went to a fund-raising event for the Carolinas Clean Air Coalition with a speaker from Environmental Defense - and there was a great turnout. CCAC has an energetic and very effective leader in June Blotnik. Likewise, our local Sierra Club has inspiring new leadership in Chatham Olive. Charlotte has a new interest in sustainably raised food too...not tremendous, but growing. Opposition to Smithfield is spreading across the state, and supermarkets are listening.

I see more and more challenges to our state's natural resources and biodiversity, things that would make my dad weep. But....I feel a powerful rumble in our new and growing activist community. It feels good.

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