The Great Recession and its 10 percent-plus-change unemployment rate have put Georgia’s environmentalists at a disadvantage they’ve never experienced before.
One suspects that lawmakers in the state Capitol would hunt down every snail darter on the face of the globe — and fry it up in a pan with fresh garlic, too — if such a dish could create one more paycheck.
Even so, the ranks of conservationists across the state were stunned when Pierre Howard, the former lieutenant governor and current president of Georgia’s oldest statewide environmental group, recently submitted an opinion piece to the Savannah Morning News that included these sentences:
“The Georgia Conservancy’s mission is to promote policies that enable the environment and the people to thrive. For that reason, we do not intend to stand in the way of deepening the Savannah harbor.”
The $600 million dredging of the Port of Savannah has been identified by politicians of all levels — from U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson to Gov. Nathan Deal to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed — as the state’s most crucial infrastructure project.
Deepening the 36-mile shipway by six feet or so would permit Savannah to handle a new, larger class of cargo ship expected to begin passing through the Panama Canal from Asia in 2014.
Most environmental groups are having none of it. They argue that the economic case for the dredging has yet to be made, and that its effect on the coastline, nearby freshwater marshes and marine life would be profound.
Which made Howard’s op-ed piece all the more startling. “I was astounded,” said Bill Sapp, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Georgia Conservancy is the only environmental group in the state willing to show that sort of support for the project.”
Howard disagrees with that assessment. Possibly, the 68-year-old former lieutenant governor admitted in an interview last week, he might have used more artful phrasing in last month’s article.
The point he was trying for: The case for preservation needs to be made from inside the tent — as well as outside. His intention was to make clear to those putting together the Savannah deal that Georgia Conservancy could be viewed as a good-faith partner when talks about the environmental impact of the dredging begin.
“I don’t feel that there’s any great split on this issue within the environmental community,” Howard said. “There may be some differences of opinion on what the tactics should be. Some organizations, their whole way of going about their work is to file lawsuits.”
Howard says he appreciates the work of such groups. He even writes them checks.
“But that’s just not what our board has authorized,” he said, “and that’s not how we go about our work.”
Howard, a Democrat, served as president of the Senate from 1991 to 1999. His tenure is now viewed by many as a kind of bipartisan Eden. “That’s the approach that I took in politics,” he said. “I tried to work with Republicans and Democrats.”
Howard is attempting the same tactics with Georgia Conservancy, which he has led for two years. In Savannah, he has taken meetings with officials from the state port authority and the Army Corps of Engineers. Other groups haven’t made it through the door.
“We want to make sure we get our arguments before them, and that they will hear our arguments and listen to our arguments,” Howard said.
But there is more to Howard’s message than style and civility. “I’m the only one in the environmental community who has ever represented Savannah. I know most of the leaders down there. I know a lot of people who work on the docks,” Howard said. “I know how important the port is not only to the people in the Savannah area but the whole state and the nation. That has to be part of the thinking,”
“We don’t ignore the economics in deciding what we’ll do about a topic,” he said.
But it is not entirely about jobs. Howard also pointed to a letter that he sent to the Corps of Engineers a few weeks before he wrote the Savannah Morning News piece. Ultimately, the letter said, Georgia Conservancy would support or oppose the dredging based on how the corps intends to blunt the damage done to the environment by the dredging.
That remains the case, Howard said. The former lieutenant governor also said that — when it comes to the statistics about the economic benefits of the dredging — skepticism can be a “healthy practice.”
“Make no mistake about this. If the port is deepened, it’s going to change our coastline in many ways forever,” Howard said. “And it’s going to change the city of Savannah forever. We know this is a big decision, a very important decision. We don’t believe we have all the answers.”
Howard said he intends to meet with representatives of other green groups to explain his alternative approach. “That’s encouraging,” said Sapp, of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider