BY: HELEN MITTERNIGHT
At first glance, many conversations that take place in South Carolina regarding topics such as food, flooding, development and transportation have no direct ties to the environment. Fortunately, Coastal Conservation League brings those important environmental ties to the surface.
“One of the things about the Lowcountry is the deep connection between the natural history and the social and cultural and human history that is all connected in this place,” said Laura Cantral, executive director of the nonprofit. “It’s a beautiful place, a fragile place, and it is now experiencing more threats than ever as we see the results of the climate changing more quickly than we ever thought it would and sea levels rising and intense pressure to develop.”
Coastal Conservation League, celebrating 30 years this year, was formed in 1989 as an advocacy group by conservation leader Dana Beach. Ironically, Hurricane Hugo came barreling onshore soon after its inception, as if to demonstrate just how crucial environmental issues can be.
The group has since flourished to include 20,000 supporters and takes on issues like transportation and flooding as well as more “traditional” nature conservancy issues. Since 2011, the organization has also encompassed GrowFood Carolina, the state’s first food hub designed to protect rural farmland and farmers from development. Growfood has helped more than 100 local farmers get their products into local markets and onto local plates through a wholesale produce distribution center. The thought behind GrowFood is that promoting local food makes perfect sense in promoting sustainability for the environment, and 80 percent of proceeds from the warehouse go back into the farmers’ pockets.
When Cantral was recruited to take over CCL, she had spent almost two decades in Washington, doing policy work with high-level experts and politicians on maintaining environmentally healthy ocean and coastal management. She said the mission of Coastal Conservation League resonated with her.
“I had been doing that for about 17 years, and when the opportunity came to be in this beautiful part of the world and to work on issues that were familiar to me—but to work on them at a different scale of government—I wanted to do it,” she said. “We all know that our capital is a pretty dysfunctional place right now, and it’s hard to get anything done. There was a lot of action happening at the state level, and I was compelled to be part of things at the state level and local level and even hyper-local level.”
She said she has discovered that passion for the environment crosses party lines in South Carolina, including bipartisan support in the fight against offshore drilling and seismic testing as well as support for land conservation, clean energy and local solutions to address plastic pollution.
“It’s okay to be conservative and a conservationist,” she pointed out. “Many people who are politically quite conservative—we are a red state, after all—are passionate conservation advocates. It comes from a deeply held sense of place and a connection to the land and the water. People here love to be on the land, and they want that to be available for their children and grandchildren.”
Look at the organization’s website, and it’s apparent that the Conservation League deals with a host of environmental issues—but Cantral said they all boil down to a common thread.
“I have been encouraging my team to think about the multitude of issues you see on the website not as individual issues but as all connected. A common thread is to create a coastal region that is strong and healthy and able to withstand the growing threats it is facing due to climate change, rising sea levels, increasing storm intensity, and changing temperatures, coupled with intense development pressure,” she said.
“This combination is potent, and, just as your body is better able to fight off infection if it is healthy, our coastal region will be more resilient if we keep all the systems healthy.”
According to Cantral, our environmental future depends on people recognizing that these issues affect us all.
“We need people who are paying attention,” she said.