Commentary: Environmentalist is not a dirty word

SANIBEL ISLAND, FLA. — Yep, I'm one of those wide-eyed tree huggers who is derided by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and countless others. Yes, I'm an environmentalist.

The term environmentalist has been turned on its head, mostly by those of the Republican ilk and made to seem almost dirty. But, I declare this day that I am proud to be an environmentalist, and guess what? You would be proud to be called an environmentalist, too.

Wednesday while taking a tour of the J.N "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, we saw an unusual sight. A spoonbill (looks like a flamingo because of its vivid coloring) dragging a snowy egret. These birds are not in each other's food chain. Unfortunately it was monofiliment (fishing line) that joined them together, and unless separated, the stronger, bigger spoonbill would have caused the death of the egret and eventually its own. Our guides, Ron and Jo, quickly got on the horn and rangers were dispatched to help the birds out.

Why should all of us be environmentalist? Let me ask three questions. Do you like the beach? Would you like it to stay as it is? Would you like to see the same shorebirds tomorrow as you do today? Do you want to experience pristine habitats and ecosystems? (I know that’s four questions.) If you do, you are an environmentalist.

Oh, by the way, this isn't just about a beach. It was neat to see at the Darling refuge ("Ding" Darling, was a newspaper cartoonist, who helped preserve Sanibel Island from developers) Bond Swamp as one of the refuge centers on the map.

So why is that important? Eco-tourism is on the upswing. More than 800,000 folks visit the Darling refuge each year, and what do they come to see? Unique animals and a picture of life that is thousands of years ago. Those scenes cannot be re-created. Are there unique things about Bond Swamp? Yes sir. Is visiting the area easy? No sir. If we made it easier do you think people would show up? You betcha.

On Thursday, we kayaked in the brackish waters of the Everglades. We saw all the usual character of shore birds, manatee, dolphins and some say we could have seen shark. Why is this important?

We can only guess at God's plan most of the time, but in his wisdom, everything works together in nature. You pull one element out — the barrier marshes of Louisiana or example — and bad things happen when a hurricane such as Katrina comes along. Being an environmentalist simply means recognizing our responsibility to take care of the creatures and habitat in our care. Man, unfortunately, tends to destroy most anything he touches. We would much rather put up a shopping mall than a bird habitat. I'm all for development, but we have to. How long is the life cycle of what we plan to build and what it will destroy? When we start messing with Mother Nature, the consequences of what we do may not repair itself in hundreds of years. Once a species is extinct, it is gone forever.

Being an environmentalist means more than nature.

It can mean keeping a culture alive, from buildings (where would we be without our historical infrastructure?) to something as great as our Ocmulgee National Monument. Remember the 1970s Joni Mitchell song:

"They took all the trees

"Put 'em in a tree museum

"And they charged the people

"A dollar and a half just to see 'em

"Don't it always seem to go

"That you don't know what you've got

"Till it's gone

"They paved paradise

"And put up a parking lot."

We should, at least, ask the right questions before we put up that parking lot knowing that nature's greatest protector and predator is man.


Charles E. Richardson is The Macon Telegraph's editorial page editor. He can be reached via e-mail at crichardson@macon.com.