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Environmental groups stay active with current issues

Three of the state’s prominent environmental groups have been green for a long time. The Sierra Club, Audubon Mississippi and the Nature Conservancy remain active in promoting eco-friendly issues and initiatives.

Louie Miller is the long-time state director and lobbyist for the Sierra Club. The organization is seeing a rebirth of membership, particularly among young people. There were five applications this year to serve an internship with the club during this session of the Legislature.

“Our membership is good and recovering from Katrina,” he said. “We took a 50 percent hit after the storm. Now, membership is increasing nationwide dramatically.”

The state chapter of this national club has subsets in the Golden Triangle, Jackson and the Coast.

“There is a renaissance around energy and that’s the club’s focus right now,” he said. “There is no shortage of issues in Mississippi. We are proactive with a push for tax credit for solar and wind energy systems for residences. We wanted credits up to $12,000, but it was killed by the utilities.”

Miller feels the state is at the crossroads on energy. The Sierra Club supports net metering, which gives home and business owners the opportunity to generate power and sell any excess back to the grid.

“We have to diversify the grid,” he said. “That creates a significant number of jobs. Conservation and alternative energy must be addressed rather than continuing to do the same old thing.”

It is finding more interest in energy across the state as consumers are hit with rate hikes. The club is actively engaged in meetings of the Public Service Commission, often presenting expert witnesses with practical applications.

The Sierra Club also worked to have a provision for retro-fitting the weatherization of existing structures included in the federal stimulus package.

A current hot issue is the fight against Mississippi Power Company’s proposal for a lignite coal plant in Kemper County. The club believes the technique is experimental at best and offers numerous examples of similar plants that have been abandoned due to prohibitive costs.

“The proponents like to toss around the term ‘clean coal,’ but there ain’t no such thing,” Miller said. “The proposed plant will emit 15 billion pounds of the number one greenhouse gas, Co2, a year. Their estimate of $2.5 billion to build it is up from the $1.2 billion they said last year.”

Mark LaSalle, Ph.D., has been active with the Mississippi Audubon Society for many years as a member of the Coast chapter. The state affiliate of the 104-year-old national organization is currently without a director. There are chapters and associated groups located in Holly Springs, Vicksburg, Jackson, Hattiesburg, Starkville, Corinth and Meridian.

“Our membership is level but we are trying to increase it, especially our youth membership. There is more interest now and young people are paying attention to conservation,” he said. “The most important issue is bird conservation. We have identified 30 important bird areas across the state – places like natural forests and rivers.”

Programs conducted by Audubon Mississippi include the Great Backyard Bird Count, Audubon Master Naturalist Program and the Junior Naturalist Program.

People in all corners of the state were trained to monitor birds at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, which LaSalle directs. The center, a part of Audubon Mississippi, opened two years ago as an educational place and the gateway to the Pascagoula River.

“We’re on a little bayou with direct access to the river,” he said. “We celebrate the river because it is the last great free-flowing river in the country. Everyone needs to appreciate the river.”

The center engages eco-tourists, local residents and school groups in learning more about the river. Two-hour boat tours are available and a boardwalk trail through the marsh is being developed. Summer camps are also held. There are demonstration gardens to show people how to provide wildlife habitat in their backyards. Currently operating in a small frame house, the center is raising funds to build a new facility.

“We’re trying to get attention on the river,” LaSalle said. “It’s a great opportunity to work with the public and volunteers. We’re planning an inventory of all living creatures on the river. We want to find out what’s out there.”

An ongoing issue of concern is the proposed federal strategic petroleum reserves in the Richton salt dome, which was announced in late 2007. The project proposes to remove water from the Pascagoula River and divert it into the salt dome.

“We’re opposed to removing water from the river and to the brine discharge,” he said. “We want the water to be taken from the Mississippi Sound. The project has alarmed a lot of folks. Thanks to our education about the Pascagoula River, opposition with letters and official resolutions has come from all around.”

The latest word is that the U.S. Department of Energy has reviewed documents, but is still planning the project.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at lynn@lynnsdesk.com.


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