I first read about Bald Knob, Arkansas, in 2010, after thousands of poisoned blackbirds dropped dead from the sky in nearby Beebe. On first look, Bald Knob has an unsettling aesthetic: a sparsely populated town, a bygone agricultural zone with toppled silos, old trailers, taxidermy businesses, boarded-up shops and a Waffle House. It’s a narrative cliche to present a rural place below the Mason-Dixon line this way, yet the scenery fits the bill.
I’ve lived in places like these, where a casual observer sees a weathered town and locals just see home. I proceed with caution anyway. I’m also unsettled by news reports of armed white nationalists marching at the capitol building in nearby Little Rock. I know this is how a lot of people experience the rural south – sorting through stereotypes and history as they go, wondering how much of the old south is present in the new.
The 12,900-acre Bald Knob Refuge, which sits about 60 miles north-east of Little Rock, is a blend of both the old and new south. It’s a former rice farm that has grown rice and soybeans in order to provide much-needed habitat and fuel for migratory waterfowl like pintail ducks and snow geese since 1993.
A half-mile into the refuge, the truck ahead of me spooks an unfathomable cloud of waterfowl. Hundreds of thousands of ducks rise from the wetlands, calling and circling. It’s breathtaking to witness. Later, a huge flock of lesser snow geese passes above me. My heart pounds; it’s moving to hear so many wingbeats overhead, to see the formations of a thousand white birds in the blue sky.
Another truck comes by. The man rolls down his truck window and asks, “You OK?”
“Fine,” I tell him, climbing down from the roof of my rental car, and showing him my camera. “Watching birds. You?” I ask even though I can see his rifle in the back.
“Out scouting hunting spots,” he says, flashing a charming smile. “You can get a better view if you take the road ’round that way.” He points me toward a new route, then takes off.
The relationship between hunters and conservation has always surprised me. Yet it’s often imperative to the success of major initiatives in the south, thanks to the influence of the not-for-profit organization Ducks Unlimited, which has a worldwide membership of 700,000 and has helped conserve over 13m acres of habitat. There are more than 34 million sportsmen and women in the United States.
Sportsmen and traditional environmentalists aren’t always mutually exclusive, or easy co-conspirators. But, there is a critical need for information to flow between those on the ground and those in policy. In order to address the urgent realities of climate change, traditional environmentalists must continue to find ways to communicate and partner with non-traditional audiences: hunters, big agriculture, fishermen, corporations and loggers.
I wanted to talk to people in the south who already work on these frontlines, and are able to build bridges between seemingly disparate audiences.
Charlie Phillips, clammer and entrepreneur, is one of those men who’s lived several lives, as a fishmonger, horse trader and shrimper.
“I’m one of those rare Republicans that believe that if you don’t take care of your environment, your environment can’t take care of you,” he says. Phillips, the owner of Sapelo Sea Farms in Georgia, makes his living growing clams, so water quality is crucial to him, which is why he serves on boards and tries to help scientists and fishermen find common ground.
He’s frank about climate change and how it’s affecting his industry. He talks about the onset of “king tides”, and fish stock moving north as waters warm. He was working on the back of a shrimp boat in 1968 when Hurricane Camille hit. “I saw the big ships washed up on shore,” he tells me. “I’ve seen what big hurricanes can do. They’re worse now. Things aren’t what they used to be.”
“Listen,” he says. “Fishermen just want to be able to catch what they want to catch and be left alone.”
He says working fishermen end up not trusting scientists because the scientific reports don’t match up with what they witness firsthand on the water every day. Reports from scientists, he says, “feel three or four years behind what the fishermen see”. He thinks it’s crucial for fishermen and scientists to interact and learn more from each other. “We’ve gotten really good at throwing rocks at each other,” he tells me. “But we need to give up on throwing rocks. It’s not conducive to fixing problems.”
Phillips is focused on what he cares most about: water. He’s evangelical about it. “It affects everything,” he says. “Wildlife, business, eco-tourism.” He bought his father’s restaurant, the Fish Dock, and uses the menus to educate customers about local water testing results. “I took poetic license,” he tells me, laughing. “I don’t use the word ‘fecal’, just ‘water quality’.”
The following day I talk with Dr Zakiya Leggett, a forester and professor at North Carolina State University whose research focuses on carbon sequestration and soil ecology. She talks about her empathy for freshmen, many of whom tell her at the beginning of her class through a pre-course survey that they don’t believe in climate change. They tell her she shouldn’t try to change their minds.
“We have to remember,” she says, her tone compassionate, “especially if these students are coming fresh from home, that they haven’t had time to form their own opinions.” She adds, “Maybe I can’t impress my ‘opinions,’ but I will give them the facts, like graphs of temperatures rising.”
Leggett estimates that half of her students are coming from a rural environment. Born in Memphis, she recalls the difficult time she had adjusting when she went from the Tuskegee Institute to Duke University. She remembers struggling with elitism herself.
Now she mentors students through this vulnerable transition, and is able to forge connections with first-generation college students and conservative students, as well as students of color – all groups who might otherwise struggle to join conversations about the scientific realities of climate change.
Dr Todd Merendino, the manager of conservation programs in the Ducks Unlimited Texas field office, negotiates strategic partnerships with wildlife state agencies, agricultural producers, hunters, biologists, private landowners, petrochemical companies and the oil industry. A hunter and fisherman, he has a practical, outcomes-focused approach to his work.
“Our mission is waterfowl and habitats,” he says. “I look for symbiotic relationships. Common ground. Common goals.”
He speaks with corporations about responsible growth and convinces them that “wetlands and marshes are your insurance policy against flooding”. He ticks off the nature of their conversations: flood storage capacity, coastal restoration projects, storm surge abatement, initiatives that keep the marsh healthy.
Ducks Unlimited recently completed a beneficial dredge use project near Port Arthur, Texas, which will move 2m cubic yards of dredge material to restore approximately 1,300 acres of the Salt Bayou Marsh watershed, an important migratory bird flyway recently degraded by hurricane damage. It’s generally more expensive to utilize dredge material in this manner, he says, but smarter to move it to a place where it serves a purpose.
Merendino’s work has large-scale outcomes, and with that objective in mind he welcomes chances to partner with corporations and big agriculture. “If the rice industry went away,” he points out, “the amount of waterfowl habitat loss would be insurmountable, impossible to overcome.”
After seeing the beauty and importance of the Bald Knob Refuge, the scale, necessity and complexity of this work impresses me.
It’s easy to be an armchair activist in 2019, or make condescending online comments about the state of climate change activism in the south. But it’s much more difficult to swim against the ideological current, or to operate between two exasperating worlds in a hands-on way, in search of real impact.
There is certainly more opportunity for cooperation and partnership, and places where more traditional environmentalists like me could find common ground with a hunter in Arkansas or a fisherman in Georgia, so that we could, quite frankly, save what we both love.