Monday, February 20, 2017 Blog

Rara Avis: Audubon’s conservation (and literary) genius. Threats to our natural heritage from Congress and from a freshman state senator. The impractical, wasteful fantasy of 526. Mea culpa on language. MLK, Jr.’s moral arc.

by Andy Hollis
“Oh, America!  Look upon her and see her grandeur.  Nature still nurtures and cherishes her, but a tear flows in her eye.”
John James Audubon
The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition is winding down in Charleston.  Television star and naturalist Jeff Corwin gave a superb presentation, with a baby alligator, an American crocodile, an opossum (aka “possum”), two foxes, a gopher tortoise, a diamondback rattlesnake, a Florida king snake, four owls, a pelican and a sandhill crane – all live and on stage in the renovated Gaillard Auditorium!
But the highlight for me was the remarkable film, “Rara Avis,” about the life of John James Audubon.  Audubon’s extraordinary undertaking, the “Birds of America,” was one of the greatest artistic and scientific achievements of the 19th century.  It helped launch the American conservation movement by dramatically portraying the awesome beauty of America’s avifauna.  (Audubon was, apparently, also a primary source of ornithological data for Charles Darwin.)
Toward the end of his life, in 1861, Audubon lamented the impoverishment, even then, of nature in America and spent much of his waning energy warning about environmental abuses.  Fast forward 155 years.  “Rara Avis,” and Jeff Corwin’s testimony to the success of federal laws in rescuing bald eagles, brown pelicans and dozens of other species from extinction, could not have come at a more opportune time.
The Washington Post reports that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chair, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), is holding hearings on the Endangered Species Act, with the intent of “eliminating (job-killing) red tape and bureaucratic burdens…”  This is to say, Senator Barrasso wants to gut the law that has been a centerpiece of American conservation success stories for almost half a century.  Among its many spectacular accomplishments – it helped protect the bald eagle from extinction.  What could be more American?
Now is the time to call senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott and urge them to oppose Senator Barrasso’s effort to reverse 50 years of wildlife conservation.
Just as Senator Barrasso is proposing the eviscerate the Endangered Species Act, the South Carolina Legislative Audit Council has done a hatchet job on the state Conservation Bank.  In a report that should be an embarrassment to its authors, the Audit Council criticizes the 15-year old program that provides a modest stream of revenue (averaging around $10 million annually) to protect some of South Carolina’s greatest places.  Over its short (15 year) life, the Bank has helped permanently protect more than 250,000 acres of land, an area larger than the Francis Marion National Forest at a cost of less than $600 per acre.
In this article by Bo Petersen with the Post and Courier, Senator Chip Campsen, who fathered the Bank while he served in the House, says “It sounds like the findings were preordained by (bank) opponents,” he said.  (Of this, there is no question.)
At no point in the report does the Audit Council acknowledge the extraordinary accomplishments of the Bank.  The auditors literally miss the forest for the trees.  (For that matter, they don’t even identify the trees accurately…)
This article, by Sammy Fretwell with the State, explains some of this, and quotes me and Bank director, Marvin Davant on the subject:
Beach … took issue with the report, calling it deficient and lacking insight. The Conservation Bank has saved important wild areas of the state (more than 250,000 acres) at minimal cost, he said. The bank has spent an average of less than $600-per-acre to do so, Beach said, citing figures in the audit. Davant said the Conservation Bank has also protected 226 miles of river corridor and 134 miles of creek frontage.
“I’m amazed at how poorly they seem to understand the big picture here,” Beach said of the LAC’s auditors, noting that “this report should be taken with something of a grain of salt.”
More needs to be said, and will be said, in response to the Audit Council report.  But unfortunately, it has already spawned a truly bad idea.  Senator Sandy Senn has introduced a bill to prohibit state funds from being used to purchase conservation easements unless the property has public access.  Why is this a problem?  Let me count (some) of the ways…
The ACE (Ashepoo/Combahee/Edisto) basin initiative was launched in the late 1980s.  The landmark project is widely acknowledged as one of the first, and one of the most successful, examples of “landscape level conservation” in the country.  It has inspired similar efforts in South Carolina and across the nation.  Today almost a quarter of a million acres of land have been permanently protected in watersheds of the three rivers, and the success has spread to the Savannah, the Ashley and Cooper, the Santee, and Winyah Bay (Black and Pee Dee) watersheds, where hundreds of thousands more acres have been preserved.  Today, there are more than 1.2 million acres of coastal land in South Carolina with permanent protection – more than any other state on the Eastern Seaboard.
Why is this relevant to Senator Senn’s bill?  Because the foundation of all of this work has been conservation easements – donated and purchased – that do not allow direct public access, but provide immense public value by protecting hundreds of miles of publicly accessible rivers, streams and creek, public water supplies, wildlife habitat and family farms that together represent the legacy of the state.  Further, the ACE and the other focus areas, as almost everyone knows, also have hundreds of thousands of acres of land that allow complete public access – for hunting, fishing, hiking, bicycling, birdwatching, motorcycle riding and about anything else you can do outdoors that is legal.
Be on the lookout for a more extensive response to the Audit Council, but in the meantime, please call your senator and encourage him or her to oppose Senator Senn’s bill that would eliminate conservation easements as a tool for land protection.
I wish I could say that this one ill-conceived proposal is all that Senator Senn has concocted this week.  Sadly, there is more.  As this article from the Moultrie News reports, she has also written a letter to Governor Henry McMaster asking him to remove Vince Graham as chairman of the SC State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB).
She justifies this by stating that Chairman Graham opposes the I-526 extension to John’s Island and (heaven help us…) served on the board of the Coastal Conservation League (about a decade ago).  Here is Mr. Graham’s response, excerpted from the article:
“I realize that Senator Senn has only been in office about a month and may not be fully up to speed on the full context of the situation. Nevertheless, all should be reminded that the agency’s name is the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank and not the Charleston Transportation Infrastructure Bank. The Bank’s board members have a fiduciary duty to all citizens of South Carolina,” he said.
Second, those who signed the letter must also understand this is a money problem. The proposed 526 extension would be the most expensive infrastructure project in state history. It does not even rank in Charleston’s own top 10 list of priorities. Despite the controversy surrounding the project in Charleston County, the Bank Board has stood by its original $420 million commitment, patiently waiting for Charleston officials to present a credible plan to fund the $325+ million projected shortfall,” said Graham. “If officials in Charleston County aren’t willing to share in the cost of this low priority project, how can they expect the rest of the State’s citizens to do so?”
Graham said he did not know of anyone who doesn’t appreciate the need for fresh thinking for how we fund infrastructure in South Carolina. “I’m proud of the way our volunteer board continues to advance a transparent, data-driven strategy that seeks to invest limited resources in priority projects in the most effective way possible.”
Here is Channel 5’s coverage of the story (if you are interested in the video version).
Speaking of I-526, the Post and Courier argues that the latest efforts by Charleston County to meet the STIB’s request for a funding plan for the project are misdirected and inadequate.
Here is an excerpt from the piece that summarizes the situation very clearly:
It’s long past time for local leaders to drop the charade and be brutally honest with tri-county residents about the very real costs and hurdles that make the 526 extension an impractical, wasteful fantasy. Then we can get to work on the 14-plus other projects that might actually make a lasting difference in Lowcountry traffic.
Now for the fun stuff (finally…)
This video from the Island Packet was taken by some fishermen offshore of Beaufort who caught (and released), a giant manta ray.  This magnificent animal is testimony to the grandeur of America, and of the world’s oceans, as Audubon saw them, and of the importance of conserving land and water, and their resident life forms, at a time when pressures and threats have never been higher.
Last week I described Judge Alex Sanders as a “died in the wool” conservationist.  Ouch!  A friend very tactfully asked me if I meant dyed-in-the-wool?  Yes.  I spotted Judge Sanders recently and although he may have been “in the wool,” he was as lively as he has ever been!  (which is pretty lively.)
One more observation on last week’s e-mail…  I quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. about the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice.  A friend sent me this from an 1853 sermon by abolitionist Theodore Parker from which Dr. King drew his quote (and properly acknowledged Rev. Parker):
 “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.”
Both beautiful and inspiring!
As this weekend has been, in all of its facets!

Contact Us

[email protected] · 843.723.8035

Stay Up-To-Date

Sign up for the latest news from the Coastal Conservation League and find out how you can get involved in our efforts.