In The South, A New Environmental Movement Seeks To Put Justice First

When Danna Smith spots an old, gnarled tree in the forest wetlands of the South, she sees a plant that gives life. But she says the wood pellet industry doesn’t see it that way and that for them these twisted trees are “waste wood” and fair game to harvest.

Wood pellets are generally made with the scraps of industrial waste, like sawdust; utility companies burn this material to produce electricity. But environmentalists say the material that the wood pellet industry uses also comes directly from hardwood trees and not just waste.

Whether it’s a tree cavity that provides squirrels a nest or a standing dead wood tree that offers a bald eagle a perch to hunt prey, the ecological value is clear to Smith, the executive director and founder of the Dogwood Alliance in Asheville, North Carolina.

Smith has worked to protect forests across the South for more than two decades, and in the last five years, she has spoken out forcefully against the rapidly expanding wood pellet industry. This work led the Dogwood Alliance to realize that it is marginalized communities who most often bear the brunt of the impacts of wood pellet mills, deforestation and the impact of climate change, yet their voices weren’t being heard.

That’s the same conclusion that longtime environmentalist and South Carolina faith leader Rev. Leo Woodberry had drawn. In a region where forest cover loss from industrial logging has been four times greater than the loss of South American rainforests, the lives of residents have been devalued in the name of profit. 

Although they work in adjoining states, Woodberry and Smith operated in different spheres. She is a white woman whose work focuses on trees and climate justice; he is an African-American pastor, who has focused on environmental justice as the executive director of the New Alpha Community Development Corporation.

When Smith met Woodberry at a climate march last year, she was inspired to do more to address the connections between land exploitation, polluting industries, climate change, race and poverty.

Their friendship led to conversations about how to address these injustices, and Woodberry later invited the Dogwood Alliance to join a 10-state Justice First Tour of the South that launched in April. The tour moves to Virginia next week, with stops in Newport News on May 18 and Richmond and Hampton Roads on May 19. It will continue through August.

“We recognize that justice is at the root of a lot of problems that we face in the U.S. and that we’ve yet to realize our ideals of justice on many fronts,” said Smith. “It’s like an onion ―  peeling back the layers; you start to realize just how deep-rooted inequity of power and resources are in our society and how that manifests in the form of injustice.”

Industrial polluters tend to be concentrated in some of the poorest parts of the South, and this results in low air and water quality, which in turn leads to health issues, Woodberry said. Rather than tackle environmental justice and economic justice separately, Woodberry wants Southeastern communities to join forces under “a big tent.”

“If we can attain justice for our constituents and our community in any of the issue areas, we have won,” said Woodberry, who heads the Christian church, Kingdom Living Temple. “By having this big tent concept that unites us and that causes us to work together, it’s historical.”

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By Yvette Cabrera