How much importance do you give to things that are not just yours, but ours?

Some people seem to feel that anything that is “ours” is worthless unless it can be made into “mine.” I put litterers in this mindset. They see roadsides in the realm of “mine,” not “ours.”

Public schools are “ours.” Libraries, “ours.” Roads, “ours.” I doubt anyone wants to swap out public roads for private toll roads. Imagine the headaches of travel if we didn’t have publicly funded roads and could only drive places if we paid the private owners.

The things that are “ours” matter. But somehow, in this crazy time, the notion of maintaining anything for the “public good” seems to be a bad thing in some circles. All assets must be rendered private, not public. And here’s why: anything enforced as a collective asset actually does cost someone a chance to make themselves fabulously rich. And when certain people feel denied a fortune due to public interest, they protest to kingdom come. They hire PR firms. They will pay politicians to do their bidding. They will play the long game of public opinion shifting. And that has paid off righteously for some. Think I’m wrong, then remember that the very notion of “collective good” has died as a principle with much of this country. Instead, America is all about "me." You think that hasn’t been accompanied by a huge effort to kill the public’s concern for its collective interests? If you are in the religion of me-first, then selfishness becomes morally right, and anything with a “we” turns morally suspect. Things that are "ours" hardly matter these days for far too many people. Folks, that’s exactly where we are in the U.S.A. in 2020-21. If you don’t see this, you’re sleeping.

This is what I thought about as I read recently about the proposed strip-mining of Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. I thought, yes, oh yes, here it is again, that process at work. It takes a lot to pry public lands from the public, doesn’t it? It is not an easy game of tug of war. It goes against the grain of past generations who sought to save such lands.

So why care? Well, I will likely never see the Grand Canyon. I will probably not make it to Yellowstone National Park in my life. Maybe I will. I’d like to. But even if I personally never lay eyes on those locales, they matter to me in principle. Because public lands are important to American society, not just me. They were preserved so I can see them if I choose. Public lands need to be preserved for future generations, too.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge probably doesn’t matter personally to most Georgians, but it should as a matter of principle. In Madison County, the health of the Broad River should matter to you whether you float down it or not. It’s “ours,” which means partially yours. You can enjoy its beauty if you choose, but maintaining its beauty and integrity is our shared responsibility.

The Okefenokee is 438,000 acres, of which about 402,000 acres are protected in the National Wildlife Refuge, and 354,000 acres are federal wilderness. It is the largest National Wildlife Refuge east of the Mississippi River and provides headwaters for the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers. The refuge is home to abundant plant and animal life and a source of considerable tourism.

The words “regulation” and “deregulation” are so loaded with partisan tension these days. That’s unfortunate, because neither is good or bad. In life, some rules are sensible. Some are not. We need sense enough to recognize that a speed limit is necessary for the public good, but not one that is too slow or too fast, right? I apply that thought to all regulations.

The Okefenokee was long off limits for mining. DuPont wanted to mine there in the 1990s, but it didn’t get the regulatory go ahead. Well, that was then, this is now. We just had sweeping environmental deregulation in these past few years. Mining at the Okefenokee is not a done deal, but it’s distinctly possible at the moment if state permits are received. Twin Pines Minerals, an Alabama company which is controlled by Raymon Bean and Steve Ingle, who also control GreenFuels Energy, LLC and Georgia Renewable Power, is aiming to mine titanium there. Deregulation has enabled Twin Pines Minerals LLC to bypass the federal wetlands permitting process and any federal environmental oversight of the mining proposal.

Of course, anyone here in this county recognizes GRP. The company burned creosote-treated railroad ties at its Colbert biomass facility until the state government put a halt to the practice after protests from neighbors about the harmful health effects of burning the carcinogen. It intrigues me to see that connection between GRP and the proposed mining project.

I think a paragraph in a Nov. 25 article in The Washington Post titled “Trump rule eases effort to strip-mine near Okefenokee Swamp” succinctly outlines the problem with the proposed project.

It reads: “One distinctive feature of the Okefenokee is that it’s shaped like a bowl, and most of it is depressed. What helps keep the shallow water inside is the Trail Ridge, which runs along the eastern side of the swamp and acts like a dam. Poke a hole in the ridge, like a break in the rim of a bowl, and water will leak out. That’s a key part of the area Twin Pines Minerals wants to mine.”

In today’s hyper-partisan environment, it feels almost pointless to point out that, yes, these efforts involve campaign contributions to Republican candidates, including David Perdue. No one is going to change their vote after hearing this. In fact, I’m pointing it out to you fully expecting this to harden your resolve if you’re already voting that way. But the bigger point is that there is a process involved in getting major projects like this through the hoops. And it has a lot to do with cash. That’s where we are as a country. And I absolutely hate this ugly reality and feel that the “public good” has been totally swallowed by the “private gain.” This project is just one of so many examples.

The door for corrupting the Okefenokee has been opened, but it’s not a done deal. And there is a coalition of over 40 national, state and local conservation groups and businesses called the Okefenokee Protection Alliance (OPA) that is fighting this proposal. Check them out at protectokefenokee.org. This project may still be shot down. But the fact that it’s even on the table is a testament to the potential harms of overzealous deregulation. And yes, there are indeed examples of absurd over-regulation in other facets of life. As I said, we need sensible speed limits in all walks of life.

The potential degradation of the Okefenokee raises the broader issue of public lands. Do we protect them? Do we let them go? Do you care? And broader still, is collective good a thing anymore? Or is it dead? Do you care? If we want things to be maintained for the public, for us and our descendants, then well, the public needs to speak up and demand as much. Right? This is especially true these days as profit grabbing at the expense of the collective good is such a lucrative political game.

Do you also see the essential seesaw of “me” vs. “we?” Push the weight too far one way and there’s trouble. Personal and public interests both have their place in this life. It’s all about balance. And in my eyes, we’re too heavy on the “me” these days. It takes effort and sincere care to be engaged together for the good of us all. Or is that too much for us to ask of our leaders — or of each other?

Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at zach@mainstreetnews.com.

(2) comments

David Vogel

Excellent writing.

Virginia Moss

Excellent editorial! History tells us that the fall of the Roman Empire was this turn to selfish accumulation of wealth at the expense of the people. Morality was swept away by extensive debauchery. It all fell apart and took a long, long time to recover to the Europe of today.

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