Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Our public lands, the push for carbon capture, & Alabama’s toxic drinking water

We set up camp on the edge of a cliff off a bend in Highway 92 in Utah. Earlier that day, a ranger had pointed toward the billowing, ominously dark storm clouds rolling in and told us we should probably stay closer to the ground. But if we really wanted to risk it, he said, we could follow that gravel road all the way up to Bears Ears.

It was about halfway up, at the sharp curve, that I decided we were high enough. The storm was still a ways out, but it was threatening, and the view was already breathtaking. While the sun was still shining, I soaked in the landscape, memorizing the colors of golden hour in the high desert: reds and burnt oranges speckled with vibrant hunter green.

We awoke in the middle of the night to the storm. The tent blew violently, the thunder cracked louder than a Southern summer storm, the world lit up from bolts of lightning stretching across the sky. It wasn’t raining much—the storm was below us, and through the mesh of the tent wall I could barely make out clouds as they passed. Eventually, the seconds between the thunder and lightning got longer, and it quieted. I heard owls hooting and wind rustling the junipers as I dozed off.

A peaceful morning followed this terrifying night. We sipped coffee as the sun dried the rocks before driving to see rock formations and petroglyphs in Bears Ears, and then made our way on through Utah toward a life out West.

A year-and-a-half later, as one of his final acts as president, Barack Obama declared Bears Ears a national monument. It was a meaningful victory for the Navajo Nation, Pubelo of Zuni, Hopi, Ute Indian, and Ute Mountain Ute tribes who trace their ancestry back to these lands and have fought for years to protect them, as well as public lands and conservation advocates everywhere.

This week, President Trump announced the administration would drastically shrink Bears Ears and the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: Bears Ears will go from 1.3 million acres to about 228,000—reducing it by 85 percent. Grand Staircase will be diminished by about half, from 1.9 million acres to around a million. It was a win for Utah’s Republican congressmen, county commissions and conservative groups who want to open up the land for development and grazing. The monuments are currently protected under the Antiquities Act, which allows a president to establish or expand national monuments to protect cultural and historic resources. Conservative lawmakers, ranchers and other locals have long cried this law constitutes federal overreach, claiming it deprives them of access to their land as Americans.

I’ve written before about the moment I discovered that public lands were, well, all of ours, and how learning the intricacies of the different agencies that manage them helped me better understand landscapes in the U.S. The federal government owns nearly a third of the land in this country; about 92 percent of it is in the West. The rest is sprinkled throughout the other half of the U.S.. Less than 5 percent of Kentucky is federally owned, and the same is true for many other Southeastern states. The U.S. Geological Survey has a useful map of federal and tribal lands, as well as a state-by-state breakdown.

These facts do not mean Southerners appreciate public lands less, but it undoubtedly hinders our relationship to them. It is one of the gut-wrenching truths of the South that large swaths of federal or tribal lands are rare. It takes effort to find wide, untouched spaces, and landscapes here often get shorted. To some out West, the rolling green Appalachians aren’t as dramatic as the jagged Grand Tetons, and the dense deciduous forests of Georgia may not seem as delicate as Colorado’s Aspen groves. But my heart has never felt more full than while staring out over the Virginia-Kentucky border at mountains clouded in fog, or gliding silently in a boat through a wild marsh in southern Louisiana.

It’s also never ached more, either. Most of these lands aren’t protected, overrun by the fossil fuel, chemical, and agricultural industries. When they are enshrined in law—the Smokies and the Everglades, for example—there are always footprints of industry: pipelines, pollution, development. The damage is often more condensed and unabashed than out West.

The expansion of federal lands is a losing battle in most parts of the South, and where it’s not, it’s a fight for every inch: the Blue Ridge Conservancy, for instance, has for years been acquiring small parcels of land off the Blue Ridge Parkway to donate to the National Park Service. The fight for recognition or protection of tribal history and culture in the South is even more complicated, devastating, and difficult.

The same night of the Bears Ears announcement, five tribes filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration. It will surely be a long battle, offering us yet another chance to set a precedent for whose history we care to remember, which people and cultures we care to protect, what we actually mean when we sing “this land is your land.” It will set off more arguments over the Antiquities Act and fuel the anti-government rhetoric that has been uniting Western ranchers like the Bundys, who want to transfer control of public lands to the states, and alt-right and white nationalist groups that have rallied in Charlottesville and elsewhere. The impacts will reverberate from the sacred sites in Utah to every corner of this country, and affect every person—whether you have vivid memories of the beauty and responsibility of public lands, or if you’ve never stepped foot on them.

Stories worth your time

Currently, there are only 17 large-scale carbon capture and storage plants that stop less than 0.01 percent of the 40 billion metric tons of carbon that enter the atmosphere every year. At its plant in Houston, Texas, North Carolina-based energy startup Net Power is developing a new technology that it says could allow it to capture carbon and use it to create electricity. Quartz visited the plant and reported on the process.

“There are a number of ways to stave off erosion and advancing water. You can fight, by replenishing dunes, planting dense thickets of beach grass, or building a barricade of cement or sandbags. Or you can flee, by giving in, cutting your losses, and coming to terms with sacrifice.” Atlas Obscura details how North Carolina’s historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved to higher ground to avoid sea level rise.

Oxford American’s annual music issue focused on Kentucky. This feature by Zandria Robinson on the history and culture of Southern hip hop and the border wars that come with defining the American South is a must-read. “I had gone from trying to wash the South from my mouth with lye soap to having ‘Southern Studies’ in my job title. Turned out I found the region in everything, everywhere. There were variations—the ‘many Souths,’ as it were—and I respected and celebrated intra-regional difference.”

News flying under the radar

This week marks the halfway point on the six-month deadline Trump gave Congress to decide the fate of the DREAM Act. More than 8,000 Tennesseans risk losing protection if Congress doesn’t pass it, and immigrant mothers in Nashville are speaking out: “I am scared, yes,” one woman said. “It’s difficult to step forward and say, ‘Here I am,’ but which mother out there doesn’t want to protect their kids? When you see your kid at risk, you take everything to save those kids.”

A new organization called The Solar Energy Work Group wants to help homeowners and businesses in southwest Virginia install solar panels on their property. The program includes workforce training and promises of jobs.

Chemical company 3M sent a letter to Alabama regulators saying that it underreported discharge of potentially toxic chemicals into the Tennessee River by a factor of 1,000. The company is in the midst of a lawsuit over contaminated drinking water.