Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Modest Proposal *

In my last post, I mentioned that I have been traveling the state and talking to forest landowners who suffered loss in the Alabama tornadoes of April 15th and 27th. I am part of a team of foresters and resource professionals commissioned by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. We have been conducting "town hall" meetings with the goal of providing information to help people find the resources to recover some of the value of acres of trees and timber that were blown down, as well as describing possible alternative methods of reforestation.

Most of the landowners I have met have no idea how to even start. Private and industrial forestry has begun the clean-up and timber harvest on many properties, but there is simply so much timber down that the sad fact is that much of it will never be recovered before it becomes unusable. There is simply too much destruction and too little time.

State forestry has provided a lot of useful information on the consequences of the storm, as well as a lot of talk about what could be done with money from state and federal programs. The problem is that most of these programs are budgeted but UNFUNDED. I believe they will continue to be so. Governments at both levels are broke.

Yesterday I attended a meeting of another group, "The Natural and Cultural Resources Recovery Task Force." This group was comprised of almost entirely federal workers: FEMA, Department of Interior, Historical Preservation, EPA, etc. This group is focused on recovery of historical sites, parks, recreation areas, and landscapes in towns. The discussion was upbeat and grandiose. Terms like "green spaces" and "Eco-tourism" were bandied about. Programs to restore the beauty of little Alabama towns like Hackleburg and Phil Campbell were laid out on a conference room table with the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store. Each agency representative talked about what could be done--and each concluded with the same phrase: "if we had the money."

Let me repeat to you, dear reader, what I finally had to say in this meeting: "WE DON'T HAVE THE MONEY, AND WE'RE NOT GOING TO GET THE MONEY." These tornadoes didn't drop us off in Oz. There is no yellow brick road. This movie will continue in black and white.

Some might say I am too negative. I prefer to be recognized as a realist.

So what can be done?

One of the things that made me proud to be an Alabamian in the first few weeks after the storms was the huge response of individuals and groups, working as volunteers, who poured into affected areas with supplies and manpower. Private citizens rolled up their sleeves and went to work wherever they were needed--collecting supplies, cooking, removing debris, repairing homes, etc. So much food and clothing was collected that some communities had to say "Stop--enough."

And these good people did stop. For the most part, they are still stopped. They went back to their homes, jobs, and lives, while people in devastated areas continue to live in tents and trailers in a countryside that looks more like a moonscape than the lush green hills of north Alabama.

As Paul Simon once sang, we have a "short little span of attention" these days. Out of sight, out of mind. We move on to the next crisis, the next political debate, the next celebrity scandal.

That has got to change for these areas to recover. Recovery must come from the private sector if it comes at all.

So if you are reading this and you live in Alabama, I'm "calling you out."

Church people: quit meeting in your holy huddles and get organized. Quit talking about loving your neighbor, and actually go out and do it. Postpone that new parking lot or "Christian Life Center" or "youth mission trip" to Disney World and divert the money to rebuild homes and infrastructure in Alabama. Partner with a church in an affected community. They probably no longer have a building. Help them build one so they can minister to their own community.

Big business: organize your thousands of employees to give time and money to volunteer here in Alabama where you operate. Not only is it good public relations, but it makes perfect financial sense. Consider it an investment in potential customers and long-term economic recovery and growth.

Small business: your entrepreneurial skills and visions are needed. There is opportunity all around. You are the real "movers and shakers" in America, so get to moving and shaking. Not only can you help people, but there is money to be made. Nothing wrong with doing both.

Civic groups: get to work. Habitat for Humanity, we have areas that need houses. Boy Scouts, plant some trees and clear some trails. Lions Club, act like lions in raising money and providing volunteers. Master Gardeners, use your skills to feed and beautify. Adopt a community. Most are less than a few hours away.

Private citizens: find some place to get involved. Give some money to a group working in a restoration effort that you are passionate about. Give up a movie or a meal a week and give the money to a relief effort. Spend a weekend a month helping your fellow Alabamians. Every occupation and trade has something to offer: teachers, doctors, lawyers, carpenters, plumbers, cooks, writers--even foresters.

Alabamians, we are on our own. Let's get to it.

It's the least we can do.

*With apologies to Mr. Swift

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Long Road

It has been a long week on the road. I've spent my time traveling to areas of Alabama that lay in the path of the tornadoes of April 27th. I've been part of a team of foresters who are providing information to forest landowners who were affected by the storms.

I was pleased to see that the top priorities of cleaning up the debris and restoring order in the towns has come a long way since that day. Cullman, for example, appears to be well on her way to getting back to normal.

The people of the countryside are not so fortunate. They come to our meetings hoping for help, looking for answers. Many have acres of trees on the ground, and three months later they still don't even know where to begin.

Many have hopes that there will be some kind of financial assistance from state or federal government. There will not be any. This is not Katrina. This is not the Gulf Coast, where the threat of oil washing up on the beach behind million dollar resorts sent truck loads of money and workers from D.C. This is not even Haiti or Bagdad.

This is cracker land, hillbilly county, redneck territory--the area people fly over at 30 thousand feet on the way to more exotic destinations.

You may wonder why I'd take part in a meeting in which you tell people that there isn't much of anything you can do for them.

It's simple really. We owe them that.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two Verdicts

The news tonight is dominated with reaction to a not-guilty verdict in the trial of a young girl's death in Florida. Most of the commentators have been outraged. I haven't followed the trial or the story, but from what I can gather from opinions I respect is that it looks very much like someone is going to get away with murder.

A friend of mine recently told me a similar story from Honduras. A two-year old child, left with a "friend" of a working mother, died. The initial story was fever and diarrhea. The body, along with confessions of two older siblings, told a different story.

It was a story of being tied up. A story of being beaten with the blunt end of a machete. A story of sheer terror.

The case in Honduras will never be reported, let alone go to trial. An investigation might lead to the children being taken away from the working parents, shuttled off to the anonymity of some orphanage.

A murderer will not even be arrested, let alone found "not guilty."

Justice, like revenge, is sometimes best served cold. But it is always served. Oh yes.

The blood of two little girls cries from the ground. I have to believe it is heard.