Bailey Thomson Professor
Journalism Department
Box 870172
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Tel: 205-348-8617
Fax: 205-348-2780

 

Annual Naturalist Dinner
Moss Point, Miss.
May 13, 2003

(Event sponsored by the Nature Conservancy of Mississippi and the Chevron Pascagoula Refinery.)

“The Pascagoula: Our Common Legacy"

I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s in Alabama, not far from the Mississippi line. My parents were farmers, as had been their ancestors as far back as anyone knew.

In the fall and winter, I learned to hunt along the banks of the Tombigbee River where once a cotton port had thrived. People still called this place by the dead town’s name, Vienna, pronounced with a broad “I” to distinguish it from the famous Austrian city.

An old store building was the sole reminder of this forgotten place. Ledgers and files left in a rusting cabinet recorded the ebb and flow of commerce. And in the old people’s memories lingered visions of steamboats plying the river when the waters were high and there was cotton to sell.

We felt the river’s presence in other ways. Occasionally, for example, one of us boys would accompany a sharecropper named E.B. Leonard as he ran his trotlines. Around mid-morning we would beach his wooden skiff on a sandbar and rest as the river rushed around us. I did not fully appreciate then the beauty of that solitude or the value of the river itself. Only decades later, when its natural state had been changed, did I grasp what we now have lost.

Promoters were not content, you see, to let the Tombigbee remain simply a river. Why leave it for a few fishermen and hunters, they asked, when with some digging and straightening the river could become a great artery of international trade?

Thus came to fruition an old dream of uniting the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers as a great waterway that would connect the nation’s heartlands with the Gulf of Mexico. The politicians and developers who persuaded Congress to embark on this massive public works project sold it as the salvation for poor counties along the Tombigbee’s banks.

As a cub reporter in the early 1970s, I interviewed Red Bamberg, who was director of Alabama’s development office. He envisioned the waterway rivaling in importance the industrial Ruhr Valley of Germany. Here at last was our state’s economic salvation – and brought to us with Yankee money!

Was there ever a sweeter prospect for prosperity?

A few years ago, I took a class of young journalists and revisited this dream. Over a fall semester, the students examined life along the banks of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, beginning near the Mississippi-Tennessee border and concluding in south Alabama. They produced a special report, which the Mobile Register published called “Tombigbee Country.”

The students found that in a few places, such as Tupelo, the local economies provided good paying jobs. Communities could afford cultural amenities, including good schools. But to what degree this progress depended upon waterborne traffic was difficult to determine. Big trucks moved most of the commerce, practicing what is known as “just in time” delivery to keep the plants humming and the discount stores full of merchandise.

Along much of the Tombigbee’s route, by contrast, the towns continued to lose population and hope. The great industries had never arrived.

Certainly, they had not come to Pickens County, where I was reared. In fact, Pickens watched its manufacturing industries leave, one by one, so that little remained of the economic base from the prosperous 1960s. Also gone were most of the family farms. In their place were vast and sterile pine plantations, which pay less than a dollar per acre each year in taxes and attract much of their labor from Mexico.

True, sportsmen and outdoors enthusiasts have nice parks and artificial lakes to enjoy, thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But at what environmental cost have these recreational places been bought? In place of a free-flowing river, we now have a big ditch. I cannot help but feel a spiritual emptiness when I stop along one of the new bridges that span the waterway and contemplate what we have sacrificed in the name of progress.

Will we make a mistake of similar magnitude someday with the Pascagoula River, another of our shared natural treasures? Or can we atone for earlier sins, beginning with the destruction of the South’s hardwood and longleaf pine forests, and elevate an ethos of stewardship for this new century?

Two months ago, I had the pleasure of touring part of this great river as a guest of George Ramseur with the Nature Conservancy. Several staff members from the Biloxi Sun-Herald joined us.

We loaded our gear and sustenance on a boat built to navigate the changing conditions along the river. Near the mouth, the water flows broadly, creating an extension of the Gulf, where saltwater species replenish themselves. Here civilization is evident in fine waterfront homes and speedboats. Only as the river begins to narrow do these trappings of society give way to natural wonder.

A trip with George is a lesson in biology, history and conservation, as they come together in a remarkable story. Eighty miles long, the Pascagoula River is the largest unimpeded free-flowing system in the lower United States. The basin comprises 9,600 square miles, extending westward from Mobile and Washington counties in Alabama to Simpson and Jefferson Davis counties in Mississippi. The headwaters began far to the north in Kemper and Neshoba counties.

As the hill country drops into the coastal plain along the route, the animal and plant species change, providing a wondrous diversity. Gulf sturgeon inhabit the river, as do sawback turtles, pearl darters and 34 kinds of mussels. So rich is the wildlife, in fact, that the basin shelters 17 species that the federal government considers to be endangered or threatened. And not only wild creatures depend upon the river system. The Pascagoula provides around 230 million gallons of fresh water each day to the basin’s residents.

As we went farther up the river, George slipped into quiet tributaries with colorful names such as Whiskey Bayou. Just ahead of us, turtles interrupted their sunning with splashes of flight and alarmed birds announced our arrival. From one limb stretched a fishing line that was taunt from a two-pound catfish on the other end. The fisherman probably was from a nearby camp.

As is evident from the river, forests cover more than two-thirds of the land within the basin. The federal government owns 14 percent of this wooded acreage – holdings that include all of the Desoto National Forest and part of the Bienville. Meanwhile, various government agencies manage large tracts set aside for wildlife preservation.

We have in the Pascagoula River Basin a natural treasure that rivals any in the world. We owe this good fortune first to what nature has provided and, second, to the wisdom of conservationists who have fought over the decades to protect this resource.

George Ramseur and his wife, Cynthia, who also works with the Nature Conservancy, are the most recent in a long line of public servants who have dedicated themselves to this great mission. In particular, we owe thanks to the Save the Pascagoula group, who have done so much to protect the river’s integrity, and to the newly formed Pascagoula River Basin Alliance, which is active in preservation.

To appreciate the rich history of such leadership, I commend to you a book by Donald G. Schueler titled “Preserving the Pascagoula.” Reissued just last year by the University of Mississippi Press, it shows how a few dedicated people can arouse sentiment for saving natural places. Because of their work, much of the Pascagoula Basin today is held in public trust, while many private landowners have developed a corresponding sense of stewardship.

But as George Ramseur will tell you, this job of saving the Pascagoula is hardly finished. One generation’s work gives way to another’s, and today we face a new challenge. Great timber companies such as International Paper face competition abroad and must change their competitive strategies. It may no longer make sense for them to hold and manage enormous timber tracts. In fact, International Paper recently sold tens of thousands of acres within the Basin. The new owners may feel compelled to pursue more intensive land use to justify their investments.

What such changes mean is that all of us must work smarter to protect the Pascagoula. We cannot rest upon the shoulders of those who labored before us, for their mission is now our own. How we respond to this challenge will be our legacy to our children and grandchildren.

So where do we begin?

I want to propose a partnership between the people in this room, many of whom are devoted educators, and two of Mississippi’s outstanding providers of news and information. The goal is to join in enlightening the public on the value of the Pascagoula River and motivating citizens to demand its protection.

The Sun-Herald has undertaken a project to document the river’s story. The newspaper’s editor, Stan Tiner, whom I have known and worked with for 26 years, has commissioned the staff to produce in-depth reports on the ecology, economy, sociology and politics of the basin. This work promises to be the most ambitious journalism in the newspaper’s history.

I am pleased to join this team as a consultant and as a writer. I know of no better way to spend a summer than working alongside these professionals. My conversations with the publisher, Ricky Mathews, who is an avid outdoorsman himself, suggest that the Sun-Herald will be an advocate and watchdog for the public’s interest, fulfilling the highest duties and responsibilities of a community-oriented newspaper.

The story only gets better, however.

Public television in Mississippi, under the direction of Marie Antoon, is producing a documentary on the Pascagoula River that will air this fall around the same time the newspaper publishes its report. The producers have had camera crews capturing the basin’s beauty over the seasonal changes. They will provide a video counterpart to the Sun-Herald’s published account, with the result being an educational opportunity for the state.

I urge you to seize this moment and bring the Pascagoula’s story into your classrooms, if you are teachers, or into your companies, churches, clubs or whatever organizations are available to you. These journalists will make understandable the arcane language of biologists and other scientists, who have so much to share about the Pascagoula. The writers, photographers and editors also will introduce readers and viewers to the people who live in this basin and who have the most at stake.

If we plan this educational project well, working through the newspaper and the television network, then the contribution of these journalists will be magnified many times.

Those of us who study the role of the news media know that their power lies mainly in advancing issues on the public’s agenda of concerns. It is not within the scope of a newspaper’s ability, for example, to save the Pascagoula from encroachment. But the Sun-Herald does have the means to ensure that preservation of this resource will be an item of high priority in public discussions. And with the help of educators and others in the public arena, the quest to preserve the Pascagoula can rise to the top of environmental priorities.

I wish there had been more of this public spirit among Alabama’s newspapers when I was growing up near the Tombigbee. In those days, the term “environmentalist” carried a negative connotation, similar to “pointy-headed bureaucrat.” Topping the agenda was creating jobs at whatever cost, and believe me we often paid a dear price for this alleged progress.

The result was a legacy that we could not afford and an economic strategy that has not survived global competition. Lost in that scramble to develop our state was an appreciation for how a good society balances the protection of its natural heritage with the need for employment.

Indeed, we are seeing worldwide how great natural attractions such as the Pascagoula River can become economic engines in themselves, as people crave activities such as fishing, hunting, bird watching and canoeing as relief from the increasing pressures of urbanized life.

So I congratulate you as your neighbor for what you have here in South Mississippi and for the wisdom and courage that were necessary to preserve this great river system. And I extend my hand as a partner in our generation’s commitment to pass this legacy forward.

May our descendants look upon the great Pascagoula River not with tears in their eyes upon remembering what once was, but rather with appreciation for its free-flowing waters as a timeless gift to God’s people.

Thank you.