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In Alabama’s Baldwin County, in the heart of the massive Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the corner church and President Donald Trump are beloved. Environmentalists, less so.
But Alabama, whose rivers boast more species of freshwater fish, mussels, snails, and crawfish than any other state, has its own peculiar strain of environmentalism, one that has set important precedents for environmental cases in other states.
“Alabama is a mixed bag,” says Bill Stewart, an expert in local politics and an emeritus professor at the University of Alabama. “We have conservative Republicans who favor minimal ... environmental regulations. But obviously we admire the aesthetics of a still-beautiful state.”
Public opinion polls reveal this tension, with roughly half of Alabamians saying that stronger environmental regulations hinder economic growth, and the other half saying that the cost is worth it to protect the rivers.
“I think people make a mistake seeing the South as an environmental backwater,” says Ellen Spears, an American studies professor at the University of Alabama. “We are plugging away at institutional change and talking about it within families.”
With his black Ford pickup, Gator-Tail skiff, and Go-Devil motor, Bubba Nelson comes off as the quintessential delta man.
Here in Alabama’s Baldwin County, in the heart of the massive and dynamic Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the corner church and President Donald Trump are beloved. Environmentalists and the federal government, less so. Thick-bearded, baseball cap pulled low, Mr. Nelson in many ways embodies this dynamic: He has no problem with the United States exiting the Paris Agreement to cut global carbon emissions, as it did formally in November, calling it “toothless.”
Packed into his Gator-Tail on this chilly November morning at a Hurricane boat ramp are two large wooden pilings, part of a desperate plan to fortify a 200-foot shoreline at his upriver fish camp against erosion. Thanks to upstream channelization and more frequent storms, erosion is threatening his life’s work. In just two decades, 14 feet of shorefront is gone, partly the result of a 26% increase in major flood events attributable to climate change.
Yet as he pours tens of thousands of dollars a year into safeguarding his camp, Mr. Nelson is wrestling with a broader challenge: a deep abiding love for a place that he fears is being endangered by a president whom he otherwise supports.
Mr. Trump’s deregulatory policies “are great for the economy,” says Mr. Nelson, “but I wouldn’t say it’s helping the environment.”
Intensified by a rash of disasters from Hurricane Katrina to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to flooding last year that transformed the delta into a 13-mile-wide river, the debate over the delta’s future highlights a historically poor state coming to terms with the costs of sacrificing deeply held environmental values.
“Alabama is a mixed bag,” says Bill Stewart, an expert in local politics and an emeritus professor at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa. “We have conservative Republicans who favor minimal ... environmental regulations. But obviously we admire the aesthetics of a still-beautiful state. Those who are engaged in hunting and fishing don’t want their areas messed up so that those interests they have are no longer viable.”
At a crossroads
When Alabama became a state in 1819, Governor William Wyatt Bibb adorned the state seal with its greatest treasures: its rivers. These waterways have served as the backbone of industry throughout the state. They are also a wellspring of life, supporting more species of freshwater fish, mussels, snails, and crawfish than any other state.
Here, where the state’s “Five Rivers” – Mobile, Spanish, Tensaw, Apalachee, and Blakeley – converge, ramshackle fish camps dot the marsh banks. Trump banners – “Get on the Trump Train 2020” – hang from nearly every trailer. Mullet bullet through the creeks. It is so diverse that ecologists suspect that species that were never discovered have gone extinct. At least 100 known ones have, including, it was long thought, the rusty gravedigger, a tiny crawfish whose fragile redoubts have long since been paved over. (But more on that later.)
The beauty belies another legacy. Mobile Bay, where the watershed dumps, is one of the most polluted waterways in the country. In the 1970s, a picture from space showed a plume of mud emptying into the bay from upstream development. Nearly 26 million gallons of sewage swept into Mobile Bay in 2017 from multiple sources, including accidental releases considered “acts of God” like lightning strikes, according to says Casi Callaway, the director of the Mobile Baykeeper organization in Mobile.
That year, one such strike led to 500,000 gallons spilling into D’Olive Creek, in Daphne, Alabama, over the span of 12 hours. But in 2018, in large part due to public attention to the topic, that was reduced to 3.5 million gallons released.
Today, perhaps the greatest threat to the bay sits just a few miles above Mobile: a vast coal ash pit leaching heavy metals, ensconced by a dyke that, to many, is a disaster in the waiting. If it were to release, says Raft River fish camp owner Marl Cummings, the toxic substrate would “kill a large chunk of the delta and the bay, there’s no question about it.”
The question of who to trust to safeguard the state’s natural legacy is complicated by not just states’ rights politics, but religious beliefs. For one, in a majority-Christian corner like Baldwin County, the idea of human-driven climate change clashes with God’s supremacy over His dominion. But Evangelicals here also wrestle with biblical admonishments to care for nature. Jeremiah 2:7, for one, scorns those who “came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.”
“‘How do I make it better?’ can be a harder question here [than in other parts of the country],” says Ms. Callaway of Mobile Baykeeper. “But people realize we are at a crossroads. What do we want to be?”
Not far away, along the causeway that connects Spanish Fort on the bay’s eastern shore with Mobile, Ray White offers one vision.
Here to pluck blue crabs out of the bay, his feet are surrounded by fast-food cups and empty cigarette packs.
“I don’t think we need the federal government down here telling us what to do,” says Mr. White, a hamburger cook at a local franchise, who spends most of his days off fishing. “The way I look at it, local authorities are keeping the crabs safe to eat.”
About 47% of Alabamians say stronger environmental regulations are a barrier to economic growth, while 45% say that cost is worth tougher rules for polluters, according to a 2014 Pew Research survey.
Those findings may belie a greater call from Alabamians for balance as economic pressures and development stress an already struggling ecosystem.
Instead of engaging in ideologically tainted debates about climate change, many conservatives in the Delta now look more deeply askance at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which rarely turns down new permits for new discharges. It is the least-funded state regulator in the country, despite the heavy discharge load into the bay. ADEM, which relies on historical climate trends rather than scientific forecasting, did not respond to requests for interviews.
“Global warming may be a problem in Bangladesh, but it’s not a problem here,” says Mr. Cummings, whose family owns a 24-acre fish camp on an island in the Raft River. “And if the federal government tries to take hold of this delta [by making it a national park], it’s going to be World War III.”
At the same time, he and many of his neighbors worry when lax regulations translate to channelization and pollution of the state’s rivers.
“We are the recipient of every pollution source all the way up from the Tenn-Tom River and all the state of Alabama river systems,” he says. “It all winds up down here in Mobile.”
A pragmatic strain
The tension of science versus faith is embodied in the 2020 election. On the ballot with President Trump will be Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat who won a special election in 2017 and is seeking reelection.
Mr. Trump has publicly questioned climate science and his administration has gutted air and water quality rules, winning him plaudits from many here. But Mr. Jones has firmly embraced scientific findings, saying the United States needs to wean from the fossil fuel sources that threaten the Mobile-Tensaw. To be sure, much of Mr. Jones’ support came from his work in prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan. But many Alabamians remember him as the court-appointed authority that oversaw a settlement on behalf of victims in a case in Anniston involving polychlorinated biphenyl.
“Alabama is closer to 60% approval of Trump, so I don’t think he’s in any danger of losing Alabama,” say J. Miles Coleman, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and an associate editor at the political prediction site Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
Given the current level of hyperpartisanship and local support for President Trump, Sabato’s lists Mr. Jones as a slight underdog. But, “if you were going to go into a lab and draw up a Democrat who can win in Alabama, it would be Doug Jones,” Mr. Coleman says.
The issue of ecology looms large for him personally. “It it something that worries me all the time,” he says.
Conservative Alabamians like Mr. Cummings, a past president of the Mobile County Wildlife and Conservation Association, are helping to drive a different strain of environmentalism.
For one, the state has put tens of thousands of acres into the Forever Wild Land Trust, which protects against development. Facing lawsuits and pressure from environmentalists, one of the state’s biggest polluters, Southern Company, has begun to truck coal ash to safer locations, abandoning plans to simply cap the leaching old fills.
That strain of pragmatic environmentalism – adjudicated not in legislatures, but in the courts – courses through Alabama history.
In the 1970s, the state attorney general fought the U.S. Army and the Tennessee Valley Authority over responsibility for toxic wastes left behind on military bases, setting a national precedent.
In 1980, in a precursor to the the 1996 lawsuit by the town of Hinkley, California, led by Erin Brockovich, the commercial fishermen of Triana, Alabama, filed suit against a DDT manufacturer for tainting their waterways – and won.
And when state agencies balked at taking climate change into account when siting new oil tanks, Mobile City Council voted on tougher zoning to force industry to place the tanks on higher ground.
“I think people make a mistake seeing the South as an environmental backwater,” says Ellen Spears, an American studies professor at the University of Alabama and author of “Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution and Justice in an All-American Town.”
To be sure, she says, “one of the biggest obstacles to sensible action is the rejection of scientific realities by the key players on the national scene. And of course that anti-science bias trickles down. But we are plugging away at institutional change and talking about it within families.”
Near Daphne, Alabama, there’s a little riffle of a creek where an environmental reporter named Ben Raines stumbled upon a fitting metaphor for both the hope and tenacity of this place. While poking around the rocks, he found a stunning sight: a rusty gravedigger crawfish, happily plucking the muck. The discovery of what was thought lost reverberated far outside Baldwin County – representing, to some, a tiny-clawed hope for the Mobile-Tensaw.
Even as developers in the beach communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach test the capacity of local sewer systems, the county has invested heavily in eco-tourism along the still-pristine northern reaches of the county, where the Tensaw River still teems with life and mystery and undiscovered species.
As he gets ready to push off from Hurricane for the 20-minute boat ride to his camp, Mr. Nelson has little choice but to keep driving pilings into the moving bank. The costs of safeguarding every camp from erosion is far too high for government to subsidize, he says. But there are, he believes, ways to slow down the destruction – to let nature catch up with man’s frenetic pace.
“I just want [politicians] to stop trying to hurt each other and start focusing on the people who care most about the land,” he says. “That’s us.”