Your Tax Dollars at Work. Sort Of.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, May 1999


Your Tax Dollars at Work. Sort Of.
A bold plan may save the Okefenokee. But is the price too high?

When itinerant silversmith steve Knight and his wife, Jo, decided to settle down in 1996, they bought what seemed to be a good spot for hosting nature lovers like themselves: a former KOA campground next to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. A pristine peat bog half the size of Rhode Island that straddles the Georgia-Florida state line, the refuge is the largest wildlife preserve east of the Mississippi--a watery haven teeming with ospreys and sandhill cranes, as well as thriving populations of black bears and alligators. Hoping to attract some of the 400,000 tourists who visit the swamp each year, the Knights flung themselves into the laborious task of sprucing up their property, planting trees, and building cabins.

Barely six months later, however, they were shocked to learn what would be arriving instead: a surface mine run by DuPont, which owns the mineral rights to an ancient dune along the eastern margin of the swamp that is loaded with titanium. Extracting it would involve clear-cutting forests, stripping topsoil, and dredging some 30 milesalong a sandy ridge. In addition to dust, smoke, and soot, the minewould also raise the specter of streams contaminated with hydraulic fluid and sediment dumped into the headwaters of two rivers. "We were faced with an industrial wasteland at the end of our driveway," recalls Knight. "We would have had the option of becoming a truck stop."

To the Knights' relief, that prospect no longer looms--at least for the moment--thanks to a still-pending deal in which taxpayers may essentially pay DuPont not to exercise its rights. While there's nothing especially radical about this arrangement--similar agreements, after all, are emerging in land disputes extending from California's last remaining stands of old-growth redwoods to historic forests along the Potomac River near Washington, D.C.--the terms of the Okefenokee deal have provoked some exceptionally sharp bickering. Hailed in some circles as a "landmark achievement," it is denounced with equal vigor by others as an increasingly common form of blackmail in which corporations pressure conservationists to endorse expensive government buyouts of ecologically sensitive land.

The confrontation started in late 1996 when the local chapter of the Sierra Club heard about DuPont's plans and immediately went to Code Red, outfitting the Knights with a ten-foot banner, printing up thousands of bumper stickers, and staging three major protests. Things reached a head in April 1997, when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt toured the Okefenokee by helicopter and then declared that DuPont would face massive lawsuits and regulatory battles if it so much as turned the ignition key in its first bulldozer. "Cease and desist!" he thundered.

Shocked by the blitz of bad publicity, DuPont made an astonishing announcement the very next week: It would mine only if it could convince all parties involved that the swamp would not be harmed. "We were very suspicious that this was a stalling tactic, a way to shut down public opinion," says Josh Marks, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club's Georgia chapter. But when the company pledged to abide by the decision of an independent arbitration committee, private-sector groups ranging from the local garden club to The Wilderness Society signed on for monthly meetings, facilitated by a private conflict-resolution team that DuPont brought down from Washington, D.C. (The Interior Department refused to participate.)

By last December, the parties had hashed out a "no-mining scenario" proposing a transfer of 10,000 acres to the refuge, a new environmental education and research center, $12 million in local improvements, repaved roads, and $73 million in compensation to DuPont and other landowners--virtually all of it to be funded by state and federal taxes. When the agreement was signed on February 5, DuPont pronounced it a "model for the future." Public reaction, however, was another matter. "Rip-off!" cried Georgia governor Roy Barnes. "Looks like gouging," fumed the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And Babbitt, quoted in papers from the Savannah Morning News to the Washington Post, groused about a "grossly inflated" buyout.

In the face of these objections, environmentalists and DuPont lobbyists now confront the unenviable task of trying to drum up political support in Atlanta and Washington, where lawmakers control the public purse strings. There's no deadline, but if the money can't be raised quickly, DuPont will have to "examine all of its options," says Rick Straitman, one of the company's external affairs managers--who adds, in an ominous aside, that "our shareholders will not allow us to simply invest large chunks of money and then just walk away."

Assuming the deal doesn't collapse, what does it actually mean? Should environmentalists be breaking out their party hats or instead be castigating an agreement whose price could render future solutions to similar problems financially and politically impossible? For the moment, conservationists involved in the negotiations seem to be shelving their concerns in favor of the more immediate imperative of saving Okefenokee. "This is a unique and spectacular resource," declares Jim Waltman, director of refuges and wildlife for The Wilderness Society. "I'm willing to try to find federal money to pay to make sure it's not screwed up."

A noble sentiment, reply the skeptics--but taxpayer-financed conservation is often a zero-sum game. "Each time you cut one of these deals, every other developer in the country wants an equal or greater amount of money," warns John Echeverria, director of the environmental policy project at Georgetown University Law Center, who notes that DuPont's proposed buyout comes on the heels of a $480 million settlement to preserve the Headwaters forest in northern California--a deal that has provoked, if anything, even greater public outrage. "In the long run," predicts Echeverria, "there will be less money in the public coffers for wildlife and habitat protection." --ERIK STOKSTAD

For the Record
Tragedy at Wakulla

Veteran cave diver Bill Stone was just two weeks shy of wrapping up an ambitious project to map Florida's Wakulla Cave System when he received the bad news on February 15: Henry W. Kendall, a 72-year-old Nobel Prize?winning physicist and a guest of Stone's team, had died during a routine dive at the mouth of the 300-foot-deep caverns. The incident, the most troubling in a series of recent mishaps at Wakulla, heightens safety concerns that have doggedStone, 46, since the launch of the expedition last December. The cause of Kendall's death is still unclear. The team doctor reported that a valve on his rebreather was improperly adjusted, causing him to black out from lack of oxygen, but the state medical examiner concluded that he suffered a fatal gastrointestinal hemorrhage. One thing, however, is certain: Kendall was diving alone, a violation of both Florida State Parks regulations and the expedition's rules. While some critics blame Stone's safety standards--perhaps unfairly--others deem such accidents endemic to the high-risk pursuit of cave diving. "It doesn't matter how experienced you are or how simple the dive," says expedition consultant Richard Pyle. "Complacency kills."

Executive Privilege

"We have to build up our defenses against these invaders," says Dan Simberloff. "They're taking over!" The Tennessee ecologist is referring to an all-out siege--battle stations, everyone--against non-native plants and animals. The alarm was sounded by Bill Clinton in February, when the commander-in-chief signed an executive order mobilizing the government against aggressive predators that destroy crops, trees, and vegetation in the United States to the tune of $123 billion a year. This month, the White House will begin its search for a director for its newly created Invasive Species Council, a squad of bureaucratic commandos who will spend the next 15 months--and some $29 million--coordinating biological attacks on nefarious flora and fauna like northern California's green crab ("a voracious predator" from Europe's Atlantic Coast that gorges on clams) and leafy spurge (a weed from eastern Europe that destroys grazing lands). It's a momentous issue, to be sure. But could the militaristic overtones be a tad overblown? "Not a bit!" thunders Simberloff. "This is war." --PAUL KVINTA, ANDREW TILIN, AND MICHAEL MENDUNO

Watch It, Son, Don't Spook Him. Now Point Your Cursor Between His Eyes...The gun lobby's scheme for recruiting your kids? Video huntin'.

"We're definitely alarmed," confides Chris Chastain, customer-service manager for the Alabama-based deer-hunting lobby, Buckmasters. Chastain's concern stems from recent studies revealing that the number of hunters in the United States has plummeted by as much as 20 percent. In an effort to reverse this tailspin, hunting organizations are scrambling to introduce children to the appeal of liquidating furry woodland creatures through, naturally, video games. Take, for example, a handheld computer simulator called Buckmasters Deer Huntin'. Slated to appear on the shelves this month, the toy offers kids the opportunity to stalk and bag their own virtual venison (fortunately, no field dressing is necessary). "We simply want to ensure," explains Chastain, "that our sport continues through the generations."

That's taking the long view, of course, but it also doesn't hurt that computerized hunting games have for some reason become the hottest thing since the Mario Brothers. The trend started last year with Deer Hunter, a $20 CD-ROM by GT Interactive that offers all the graphic excitement of your corner ATM. Players stare at a motionless woodland tableau for up to 20 minutes, at which point the image of a confused ungulate appears. Click the mouse and the animal drops. Game over. Deer Hunter has sold more than 1.3 million copies, qualifying it as the second best-selling computer game of 1998 and inspiring soporific imitations such as Field & Stream's Trophy Buck and Interplay's Redneck Deer Huntin' (the dropped "g" seems lamentably de rigueur).

Buckmasters thinks the hook-'em-early strategy might prevent hunters from becoming an endangered species. Alas, this line of reasoning fails to explain the appearance of several inspired backlash parodies, most notably Simon & Schuster's Deer Avenger, in which an enraged buck armed with a slingshot scours the woods for hapless hunters who are all too easily tracked via discarded beer cans and pornographic magazines. Though Simon & Schuster's publicity department insists that it's all in good fun, hunters have trouble seeing the humor. "A lot of people aren't pleased," grumbles one representative from GT Interactive. "This type of thing doesn't help anybody." --JONATHAN MILES

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!