Annual Naturalist Dinner
Moss Point, Miss.
May 13, 2003
(Event sponsored by the Nature Conservancy of Mississippi and the Chevron
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.