As I walked through stands of cypress trees and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss in one of Florida’s coastal forests, I found myself thinking about the relationship between forests and people. In my work as an organizer for Dogwood Alliance, my underlying objective is to protect Southern forests, but very rarely does my work take me to the woods. Instead, for me, forest protection means human interaction.
It means connecting with people to understand what Southern forests mean to them and connecting them with the resources they need to protect their local forests and communities.
Last week, Rita Frost and I left the office for a two week Outreach Tour to meet with people across the South who are passionate about protecting our Southern forests. We are here to learn what issues are important to them in their communities and how Dogwood Alliance can support them.
We are here to understand what their relationships are to their local and global forests.
Halfway through our tour, we have met with activists, organizers, environmentalists, landowners, retired foresters and communities living on the front-lines of industrial logging.
Across hundreds of miles, this diverse group of people all agrees on one thing: we must protect these special places.
Our forests invoke in people a sense of emotional well-being. They give people a sense of place and hold memories for generations. In Perry, Florida, both Becky Jerrells and Janice Blair took us to Melviny Creek, a forested wetland that creates a nostalgia that makes these two women giggle and gossip like teenage girls. They told us of fishing there as young children and retold stories they had heard of their grandparents boating the Fenholloway River. Now, after decades of abuse by the local Buckeye Paper mill, the river is shallow enough to wade through.
In Panama City, FL, activist Henry Lawrence joined us as we investigated Enviva’s Cottondale facility. In a booming voice, Henry calls for greater involvement and activism by citizens. But when he speaks of his love for forests, his voice softens.
“There’s nothing like sleeping in the woods,” he tells us.
The coastal communities we met cited physical safety and permanence of their cities and homes as some of the most pressing reasons we need to protect our forests. In Louisiana, activists with Baton Rouge Organizing told us, “If we destroy our wetlands, Baton Rouge is going to disappear!” Five hundred miles away, in Perry, Florida, Becky Jerrells has been fighting the Gaia Corporation biomass incinerator that has been proposed to be built in her neighborhood.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to us the next time we have a really big hurricane,” Becky told us. “It’s just going to devastate us because there’s no forests left to protect us.”
Saving our Southern forests means saving our Southern communities. It means fighting for a world where our children know and love the same forests that we do. In Baton Rouge, Shamaka Shumake tells us that every day, she makes time for her 3 year-old son to play outside. When she can, she visits hiking trails. Some days she just drives to sit by a tree. She wants her son to grow up with the same relationship to nature that she has. In Pensacola, the Student Environmental Action Society at UWF is fighting to protect a sanctuary on campus from being turned into a housing development. Though many of the group will graduate in the next year, keeping this area preserved for future students is worth fighting for. In Mobile, AL, a retired forester told us about going against the grain in his work for many years. This wasn’t the easy path for him, but backing down wasn’t an option when the stakes were the survival of our natural forests.
The biomass industry can try to sell industrial logging as a benefit for our forests and communities, but we know that our human community cannot survive without our forests. Our forests sustain life. They provide us with clean water to drink, clean air to breathe and act as barriers to storms and floods.