Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Public lands, Whitman, & labor shortages

There’s a photo of my sister and I outside Mammoth Cave National Park, our rain jacket hoods squeezed tight around our chins, mischievous half-smiles on our faces. I was four years old; she was two. I don’t remember the trip in the least, but I knew that picture was taken near the entrance to the largest cave system in the world. The well-known green and gray NPS sign is etched into my memory.

Twenty years later, I returned to the park for a backpacking trip. It was a crowded, sticky, disgusting July weekend, and it rained most of the time. When my friend and I returned to the car, dozens of ticks were crawling all over our skin. We spent the next few days picking them off, lamenting forests around here, plotting our move out West.

Since returning to Kentucky from Colorado, I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with public lands and how differently — and more endearingly — I see the landscapes here now. Recently, I wrote an essay about discovering the significance of public lands during a road trip out West, when I camped and hiked in the desert, in the mountains, and on the coast for the first time. Before that, aside from Mammoth Cave and a few hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, my relationship with the NPS was primarily through Internet searches, friends’ stories, and daydreams. Most parks east of the Mississippi are small and sparse, and 92 percent of the land the federal government owns is in the West. In Kentucky and several other Southeastern states, less than 5 percent is federally owned, so this inexperience with federal land agencies, including the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, is not uncommon.

In the last two years, I’ve read and written about the land transfer movement and followed the continuing saga of the 2014 Bundy standoff with BLM officers in Nevada and the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge (pro tip: if you want the most thorough reporting and context on this, read Tay Wiles at High Country News). I’ve explored and hiked and camped, learned about native flora and fauna, become better prepared to avoid crowded campsites. Obviously I’m still no expert, but my knowledge of public lands and the agencies that manage them is much richer than it was just two years ago. So when Congress moves to undofederal land protection or change how we manage historic landmarks, it now feels more like a personal affront. That has been an important mind shift.

In the South, where public lands often feel out of reach but attachment to place is incredibly strong, it feels more critical than ever to appreciate and attempt to understand America’s evolving, complicated relationship with landscapes — no matter where we live, how little we interact with them, or whether our first national park visit was the Grand Canyon or some muggy, dark cave beneath a tick-ridden forest.

Stories worth your time

Watch this. It’s part one of a 52-part documentary made by filmmaker Jennifer Crandall, who “has rambled across Alabama, inviting people to stare into her camera and reveal their own selves through the word of a 19th century poem, Walt Whitman’s epic ‘Song of Myself.'” A new video, made in collaboration with photographer/filmmaker Bob Miller, will be released each week. The creators write: “Who is America? The question will always be a difficult one. But if you listen to Alabama’s many voices, you may hear some of the answer.”

This Times-Picayune explainer of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline and the history of the tangled oil and gas pipelines across Louisiana is an absolute must-read.

A few years ago I went deep sea fishing for the first (and last) time. We caught baby sharks and took photos before releasing them. I’ve really never thought about the experience much until I read this Hakai story on the dangers catch-and-release techniques pose for sharks long after they’re set free. It follows shark anglers and scientists in Florida trying to figure out what goes wrong.

One of my favorite pieces of journalism from the last few years is a profile in Esquire about Dr. Willie J. Parker, a black man who is the sole abortion provider in Mississippi. He has an upcoming book called “Life’s Work: The Moral Argument for Choice,” and the Times recently posted a little Q&A with him about it. Also, if you’ve never read the 2014 Esquire story, I highly recommend it.

News flying under the radar

I wrote for FiveThirtyEight about what causes the sky-high cancer incidence and mortality rates in Appalachia. Cancer incidence has declined in much of the country since 1969 — but not in rural Appalachia, where cancer mortality is 15 to 36 percent higher than it is for urban, non-Appalachian people.

It’s getting close to horse racing season, and America’s visa limits and immigration restrictions threaten a labor shortage in the horse racing industry. Big-time trainers rely on thousands of undocumented immigrants and H-2B visas every year; they say Americans won’t shovel manure or do other work in the stables. They’re in for a rude awakening if the stays on immigration continue.

Coastal cities could flood three times a week by 2045, and the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern coasts are going to bear the brunt of it. This Climate Central storydoesn’t focus much on the Southeast and the Gulf, but they are high-risk areas.

South Carolina, Arkansas, and Georgia are some of a few states that have never passed hate crime laws. According to Pacific Standard, much of the opposition to these bills comes from well-organized Christian fundamentalist groups that don’t want to offer hate crime protections for LGBTQ people.

A fire that injured five people and presumably killed one other at a Phillips 66 pipeline station in Paradis, Louisiana is now out, officials report. The explosion happened on Feb. 9 while workers were cleaning the pipeline. Side note: If you have any more information/tips/sources about pipelines/protests/related water quality issues in Louisiana or elsewhere around the South, shoot me an email.