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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Alabama's Eco-Rebels

Air Date: Week of

They call themselves "rednecks," but these three crusaders use sophisticated tactics to successfully battle polluters in the deep South. The group, called WildLaw, is racking up an impressive record, winning law suits and protecting bio-diversity in what they describe as a "good old boy" style. Samuel Hendren reports.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. It's a bit unusual for an environmental group to boast that its members can shoot straighter and drink harder than any other naturalists around. But that's the claim of 3 Alabamians who've organized a small yet effective group. Its aim is to preserve and protect some of the nation's most unique flora and fauna. Producer Sam Hendren profiles Wild Alabama, and what it's up against in a state vying for the title of America's Extinction Capitol.

(Engine running, stops. A door opens.)

HENDREN: When Ray Vaughan, Lamar Marshall, and Ned Mud head into the Alabama outdoors, they always go well prepared.


MAN 1: I have my gear, maps, and everybody got a firearm, I assume.

MAN 2: Right. Digital camera, digital video, 357, tequila...

HENDREN: With their cameras, these 3 friends document Alabama's dwindling wilderness. Vaughan and Mud are both attorneys who often back up their environmental lawsuits with dramatic photographic evidence. Lamar Marshall is a champion trapper whose modern-day trading post helps support his activist environmental organization, Wild Alabama. On today's outing Marshall is carrying a pair of handguns in case one jams, he says.

MARSHALL: I carry 2 Colt 45s (clicks). I'm a naturalist and I look around here in nature and I see that God has armed almost every creature. Rattlesnakes have got fangs, porcupines got quills, skunks got the sprayer, and God Almighty gave Man the ability to invent the Colt 45 as his defense.

HENDREN: Endless pressure, endlessly applied, is Wild Alabama's motto. But its firepower is legal action and its battlefield is the courtroom. Together, Marshall's Wild Alabama and Vaughan's Wild Law generate 90% of environmental lawsuits filed in the state. Such activist lawyering, according to Ray Vaughan, has created hard feelings.

VAUGHAN: We've all been threatened. My office has been broken into and people try to go through my files. When you really stand up for the environment and you take on the power company, the paper mills, the timber industries, multi-billion-dollar corporations, not just 1 or 2 of them but dozens of them, certain people don't like that. And violence is part of the repertoire of people who despoil the Earth, that they don't mind using from time to time.

HENDREN: Ray Vaughan's Wild Law gets by on 2 and a half full-time attorneys and a $150,000 a year budget. Yet its legal activity is phenomenal, bringing as many as 60 lawsuits in Alabama last year and filing many more administrative appeals. Wild Law's success rate is even more remarkable, winning more than 80% of its cases during the last 2 years. But in spite of its courtroom successes, it still faces tremendous hurdles, says Ned Mud.

MUD: The fact is the 3 of us live in the black hole of biodiversity here in America. And this is one of the most spectacular places, or it could be, and we're up against incredible odds.

HENDREN: More species go extinct in Alabama than anywhere else in the country except Hawaii and California. But the state's biodiversity remains tremendously rich, due to the most part to the many rivers that flow through to the Gulf of Mexico. The landscape, though, has changed greatly in the past 200 years. Botanist William Bartram wrote of a very different Alabama, one filled with magnificent forests, on a trip to the Gulf in the mid-1770s.

MAN: (Reading) Advancing forward from the river and penetrating the awful shades passed between the stately columns of magnolia granda flora, and came to the ascents supporting the high forests and expansive plains above. What a sylvan scene is here. I recline on the verdant bank and view the beauties of the groves.

HENDREN: Progress came to Alabama in the early 1900s and its impact, says biologist and Alabama native E.O. Wilson, was great.

WILSON: The mass extinctions suffered by the fauna of the state occurred when the great rivers were dammed, particularly the Tennessee River, beginning in the 20s. And of course that brought great benefit to the people of Alabama. It helped to raise a lot of rural Alabama from a Third World country to a quite prosperous and rapidly-advancing state it is today. But the price for generations to come and the loss of its biodiversity was very, very steep.

HENDREN: Industry soon had a firm hold on Alabama, and according to Ray Vaughan it continues today with the help of the state's politicians.

VAUGHAN: We're a source of cheap lumber, cheap coal, cheap hydropower that's exported out of the state, natural gas. We have a lot of wonderful natural resources which we sell to anybody for virtually any price. Just, you know, please give us 5 minimum wage jobs and we'll let you destroy an entire county with your chip mill.

HENDREN: Even the Federal Government, it seems, whether by accident or intent, is at times a danger to the state's natural resources. Several months ago, at Little River Canyon National Preserve in northeast Alabama, a bulldozer operator hired by the National Parks Service destroyed a portion of a bog where the endangered green pitcher plant was growing. Wild Law has filed suit over that incident, also charging that the Parks Service is polluting the nearby Little River, the only virtually pristine river left in the state. The US Forest Service, which harvests timber in Alabama's national forests, is a more frequent target of Wild Law litigation.

VAUGHAN: Well, we're in what I call the crown jewel of Alabama; it's the Bankhead National Forest in northwest Alabama. There's about 400 miles of canyons here, and it appears as though a piece of the Smokey Mountains were transplanted into this part of Alabama. And we just walked approximately a mile back into the Bankhead, across what used to be native hardwood ridges.

HENDREN: But the Forest Service is systematically cutting the Bankhead's hardwood trees, selling that valuable timber, and replanting pines. It's a practice that, according to Ray Vaughan, endangers rare species.

VAUGHAN: We're sitting in the middle of a recent timber cut right now. But this area ought to be a wilderness area. If this were left alone and the Forest Service quit micro-managing it, the hardwoods would take over these planted pines and they'd put the place back. Nature knows what to do. These forests even, as badly mangled as many parts of them are, still are the refuges of our last remnants of biodiversity in this state.

(Waterfall, a whoop)

HENDREN: Vaughan, Marshall, and Mud have walked a half-mile further, descended into a canyon, and have arrived at sheltered pool below the Caney Creek Falls.

VAUGHAN: They have this mystique about them, blowing out of these big hemlock trees. That was a sandstone bluff. This is a very ancient place. Some of the Native Americans called it a place of power. It like rejuvenates you to get down here and these negative ions that are churning around in the mist that are coming out of the water here.

(Waterfall continues)

HENDREN: Wild Alabama and Wild Law have been fighting the US Forest Service for years. They've charged the Forest Service with destroying Native American archaeological sites and with failing to conduct adequate impact studies before timber cuts. A recent report by the Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General seems to validate those claims. The report says that surveys for threatened, endangered, and sensitive species in the South have not been performed, and that too many trees are being harvested.

(Voices indoors)

MARSHALL: Yeah, it would be great to get a shot of the wilderness.

DAVENPORT: Yeah, I figured you'd want to do a few shots within the boundaries of the Bankhead.

HENDREN: At times, Mud, Vaughan, and Marshall use guerilla tactics and clandestine operations to gather photographic documentation. Today's mission is somewhat easier, as Marshall, a photographer, and pilot Hume Davenport take to the air.

(Engines run)

HENDREN: Hume Davenport heads South Wings, which provides flight services to southern environmental groups. During the next 3 hours he'll fly Marshall and his photographer over several hot spots in north Alabama.


MARSHALL: One of our strategies is to show the public the utter contrast between beauty and destruction.

HENDREN: At an altitude of 2500 feet, Davenport flies along the Tennessee River for photographs of a paper mill, chip mills, and a nuclear power plant.


DAVENPORT: Lamar, is your group protesting all this development along the river here?

MARSHALL: Absolutely. Everything from water pollution to air pollution to deforestation.

HENDREN: Many of the photographs taken today will appear in future issues of Wild Alabama magazine. Marshall places majestic scenes side by side with photos of strip mines and clearcuts. But the 3 don't always win their cases. Citing a potential threat to endangered mussels in the Tennessee River, they tried to stop the building of a natural gas pipeline through the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. James Cleary, General Counsel for Southern Natural Gas, says his company will minimize adverse impacts on the environment by tunneling 80 feet below the river bed, using a sophisticated directional drill. He says Wild Law's objections are without merit.

CLEARY: Indeed, after hearing the evidence and hearing argument from counsel from both sides, a Federal judge here in Birmingham agreed that Mr. Vaughan and his group were unlikely to prevail on the merits of the case, and that they hadn't shown a threat of irreparable harm to the mussel species.

HENDREN: There's little doubt that Marshall, Vaughan, and Mud have embittered some corporate opponents with their litigation, forever losing any chance at compromise through negotiation. The 3 may also have ruffled the feathers of mainstream environmentalists, whom they call "eco-weenies." But that tough guy talk, according to the Alabama Environmental Counsel's Ken Wills, may do a lot to save Alabama's environment.

WILLS: Lamar, Ray, and Mud definitely represent the kind of interest of, you know, your poster-boy Alabamian. And I think that if we're going to save the environment in Alabama, we've got to appeal to the guys who are more interested in the hunting and the fishing, just getting in the outdoors, than understanding the deep ecology of the forest.

HENDREN: Marshall, Vaughan, and Mud do understand the perils that surround Alabama's few remaining wild places and endangered species. And they say they're willing to use just about any tactic to save them.

VAUGHAN: You wouldn't go out and say, "Hey folks, we need to save the snail, because it's biologically important." Nobody cares about that in Alabama. But what people do care about is where their grandmas and grandpas grew up, the mountainside they killed their first deer on, and where they caught their biggest bass. They are about the natural resources, and it's a cultural thing. An example, this old man once said, "The blood and the bones of my ancestors nourished those old trees that they're clear-cutting up there." And that'll fire people up.

HENDREN: For Living on Earth, I'm Samuel Hendren in the Bankhead National Forest, Alabama.



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