By Danna Smith and Reverend Leo Woodberry
Today is the International Day for Biological Diversity, the month of May is American Wetlands Month, and the Atlantic hurricane season begins next week. As we brace for another season of intensifying storms, it’s an opportune time to reflect on the vital role that our diverse, Southern wetland forests play in sheltering some of our nation’s most vulnerable communities during this new era of climate change and rapid loss of biodiversity.
Extreme flooding linked to climate change has become the norm for communities living in the Coastal Plain of the South, home to the lion’s share of our nation’s wetland forests. What used to be considered “hundred year storms” have recently been occurring every few years.
This flooding has a disproportionate impact on low income communities and people of color across the rural coastal plain of the Southern US.
Last year, we spent time with people on the ground living in some of the most rural and remote areas of the Pee Dee Watershed of South Carolina, recently identified as a regional priority for wetland forest protection. Places like Britton’s Neck in Marion County were hit especially hard by back-to-back flooding events from the 2015 “Thousand Year Flood” to Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and tropical storm Florence in 2018. We listened to stories of people losing their homes and contaminated drinking water from the flood waters carrying industrial site waste into the river and water supplies. Even a year later, we could see evidence of flood damage. We heard the sadness in the voices of community members who told us about an elderly woman who was still homeless.
We heard stories of hurricane relief funds being withheld from people who hadn’t paid their garbage collection fees. We saw notices attached to empty houses that still hadn’t been restored from flood damage, warning that if the home wasn’t raised by as much as 7 feet, they would no longer be eligible for flood insurance.
For a low income rural community already struggling, these storms have pushed the most vulnerable to the brink.
In 2015, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity issued a press release, preceding the Paris climate negotiations. This document underscored the need for governments to consider the protection of biodiversity as a climate disaster reduction strategy because functional ecosystems provide “safety nets to communities in times of climate shocks and natural disasters.” The scientists went on to write, “Biodiversity is a critical resource, not only for climate change adaptation and mitigation, but as a tool to make countries more resilient and help reduce the risk and damages associated with natural disasters.”
Southern wetland forests are among the most biodiverse forests in the world, home to a diversity of unique plants and animals, such as the Venus flytrap, American black bear, and the Skipper butterfly. According to the World Wildlife Fund, these forests rank among the top ten in North America for reptiles, birds, and tree species diversity and “are some of the most biologically important habitats in North America.”
These diverse Southern wetland forests evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to function like large sponges, soaking up flood waters during periods of heavy rain, while ensuring an abundance of naturally filtered, clean drinking water.
As storms and droughts become more intense, protecting these wetland forests as a safety net for our communities is one of the smartest things we could be doing right now.
While these forests, found along rivers throughout the coastal plain of the US South, are vital to the health and well-being of rural communities, they remain under constant threat from industrial logging. The rate and scale of logging in this region of the South is among the highest on Earth, estimated to be four times greater than logging rates in South American rainforests.
Logging is the largest driver of forest cover loss in this region.
In addition to paper and wood for building, the expansion in the production of wood pellets to fuel power stations in Europe is now adding to the threats to wetland forests.
Large-scale logging releases vast amounts of carbon that would otherwise be stored.
It also diminishes forests’ ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Scientists agree that drastic reductions in carbon emissions and the active removal of carbon from the atmosphere are both vital to meeting climate change mitigation goals. Logging also compromises biodiversity and forests’ ability to provide natural flood control and other life-supporting functions. Equally as important, wood manufacturing facilities like paper mills and wood pellet mills release toxic pollution into the air, compromising the health of people living nearby.
Though the Coastal Plain of the US South is the world’s largest wood producing region, their rural economies are depressed. High poverty rates, high unemployment rates, and other indicators of socioeconomic stress are evident in these rural counties where industrial logging is concentrated. While African Americans make up a large percentage of the population, white people own the overwhelming majority of the land.
The long history of land exploitation and degradation with its resulting wealth inequality is evident throughout these communities.
About one year ago to the day, we were blessed when the Pee Dee Tribe in South Carolina invited us to a gathering. Spanning from the southern central border of North Carolina to the northern central coast of South Carolina, the Pee Dee River and surrounding watershed is named after the Pee Dee Tribe, the area’s original inhabitants.
Living among thousand year old cypress trees stretching for hundreds of miles along the Pee Dee River and its tributaries, the Pee Dee Tribe thrived in this hurricane-prone floodplain, surviving storm after storm for an estimated 4,000 years. Moving up and down the river from the coast inland, they found everything they needed in the rivers and in the woods. Never taking more than was necessary to survive, the tribe thrived among intact, ancient wetland forests, which provided fresh water, food, medicine, and shelter.
But neither the Pee Dee Tribe nor the ancient forests that sustained them stood much of a chance against the destructive storm that began some 400 years ago when the European settlers landed on the coast of South Carolina. As the settlers moved inland along the river, land was conquered, people were massacred, and the ancient forest destroyed and degraded.
The Pee Dee Tribe and the forest that sustained it are but a small remnant of what they once were.
Stripped of their land, their culture, and their way of life, Chief Parr, the current chief of the Pee Dee Tribe, is working to protect the forest and restore the culture of his people. “Once it’s gone, you can never fully get it back,” he said. “But we can get some of it back, and in doing so, maybe we can help people understand that humans are not separate from nature and that treating the land with respect is vital to all of our survival.”
A few years ago, the tribe was gifted a 16 acre tract of land with wetland forests in the Pee Dee watershed.
Though developing it would bring income to the tribe, they have no interest in exploiting the land for profit.
Instead, they want to build a cultural center, plant an organic garden that can provide the tribe with fresh food, and create a place where everyone is welcome to learn about their culture and experience the beauty of the Southern wetland forest. “We aren’t interested in trying to make money from the land,” Chief Parr noted. “It’s greed that has gotten us into this mess to begin with.”
Climate scientists agree that indigenous peoples and local communities play a central role in safeguarding land, noting that forests throughout the world managed by indigenous people and local communities (vs private individuals or corporations) are more protected and less disturbed. In Peru, putting land back in the hands of indigenous communities quickly reduced forest disturbance and clearing.
In the Southern Coastal Plain, almost all the land is in private ownership, and there is a long history of unjust policies that have excluded Native Americans and people of color from owning and retaining land.
It is estimated that the economic value of standing wetland forests for their climate and other ecological benefits is fifteen times greater than their value for wood products. And while the forest industry employs some 950,000 people nationwide, the outdoor recreation industry employs 7.6 million. Yet outdated tax codes and government policies continue to favor industrial logging over protection, and the gigantic costs of climate change-related storm damage escalates.
It’s time to transform the forest economy across the rural coastal plain of the South to one that creates greater economic equity and builds climate resiliency in vulnerable communities.
Across the coastal plain of the South are rays of sunshine bursting through the cracks of the dark storm cloud that has hovered over this region for hundreds of years. A movement as diverse as the wetland forest itself is gathering strength, with people working together to reweave the wetland forest safety net that has been torn apart by industrial logging. As we look to rebuild our nation’s economy, there is no time like now to embrace change and make protecting our diverse Southern wetland forests and communities the new norm.