Why you should care
Because diverse coalitions can lead to more wins.
Having toured half the country for OZY’s States of the Nation project, reporter Nick Fouriezos reflects on the lessons learned from his travels around this imperfect union.
Water lapped the sides of the riverboat as it slid down the Savannah River, driven by Tonya Bonitatibus, as she pointed toward the coast. There, she warned, lurk “big-ass radioactive alligators!” — a warning served up with plenty of Southern sass. I’ll never forget the sight of those mammoth reptiles as they slipped below the surface of water artificially warmed by a nearby nuclear power plant. A more poignant moment came later, as Bonitatibus, the Savannah riverkeeper, walked through the massive cypress trees in the swampy marshes. “This is absolutely where our heritage lies. This is us,” she said.
She caught flak from some on the left for turning her message into an indictment of property laws, but for her, talking to local values was a no-brainer.
It was that plea — not purely environmental, but more of a conservationist message focused on opposing eminent domain abuse — that helped her rile up local opposition against a problematic pipeline project. She caught flak from some on the left for turning her message into an indictment of property laws, but for her, talking to local values was a no-brainer. Her push succeeded, with conservative lawmakers passing laws that ultimately derailed the pipeline project, and similar tactics are now being used by activists from New Hampshire to Arkansas.
As I’ve toured the U.S. — from the Northeast to the Rockies — I’ve seen diverse ideological coalitions uniting around environmental issues. It’s just another sign of the bleeding of red and blue that happens once you take a microscope to national issues. And such politically colorblind tactics could prove invaluable for the activists facing, say, the next North Dakota Access Pipeline.
Sitting in the back of the tiny single-engine Cessna Centurion, I was nervous when the propeller initially stalled like an old boat engine. “Sometimes she runs hot,” the EcoFlight pilot said, moments after telling us it was pretty rough in the skies that day. Once safely airborne, the view of Gardiner, the Montana doorstep to Yellowstone, and the Chico Hot Springs showed me why locals are so worried about two proposed gold mine projects in the area — the mountains run straight down into the businesses and the Yellowstone River, and any polluted runoff would likely cause significant damage to one of the nation’s most dramatically gorgeous landscapes. The mine proponents argue that drilling has done no major damage in the past. But opposition has been wholeheartedly bipartisan, uniting liberal wolf guides and conservative inn owners alike — and many more who rely on the $200 million in tourism that rolls in from the park each year.
It’s never great when a truck dumps 1,200 tons of radioactive fracking waste into a landfill across the street from your local middle and high schools. It’s even worse when your state doesn’t even frack, as was the case when Kentucky’s Estill County — an Eastern foothill region with the slogan “Where the Bluegrass Kisses the Mountains” — became “a dumping ground for Yankee trash,” as former state auditor Adam Edelen told me. The companies involved received a slap on the wrist, essentially; such outsourcing of waste is “a natural consequence,” environmental law experts say, of companies trying to avoid disposal regulations in states with more stringent laws.
This is a case of unified opposition against an environmental endeavor. In the tiny villages of Somerset and Yates, where the only bar open past 9 on a weeknight is a half-hour drive away, the quiet and the beauty go hand-in-hand — and it’s what has locals worried about a proposed project to build dozens of windmills looming larger than the tallest skyscrapers of Buffalo. Environmentalists, too, have opposed the project, citing concerns over harm to local birdlife. Such turbines are increasingly becoming fixtures, not just of upstate New York but also of previously unexplored locales such as Georgia and Tennessee.
But speaking with locals, including Sherry McKenna, a Trump-loving grandma who kindly packed me a free muffin for the road, I found that many felt their voices weren’t heard, and that the tranquility of their community was being sacrificed to fulfill the energy needs of New York City seven hours away — or to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose famous promise to get half of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2030 will mostly be built on the backs of rural communities like these. Still, perhaps the most fascinating account came from Susie McNulty-Atwater, a 40-year-old engineer who moved to Somerset from Carroltown, Pennsylvania — a coal town that, more recently, has embraced the wind industry. “It brought jobs to the area,” she says. “And they are cleaner and safer.”