Kemp, Perdue, and Abrams

This year’s gubernatorial race in Georgia is shaping up to be a doozy with former Sen. David Perdue challenging incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp in the Republican primary set to take place in late May. The winner of that match will take on Stacey Abrams – voting rights activist, lawyer, and former minority leader in the Georgia House – on Nov. 8.

Among the important issues that will likely be debated this year – from health care, jobs and crime to immigration and education – there is one issue that, unfortunately, may not get much attention: the environment. Yet, clean water and air, land protection, and strategies to combat climate change are critical issues that affect our health, our families, and our communities today and in the future.

Whoever is chosen in November to reside in the Governor’s mansion will play a major role in shaping environmental policies and investments in Georgia for the next four or eight years.

Nineteen people – members of the Georgia Board of Natural Resources – make policy decisions that affect you, your family, and your property, yet this group is not well-known to the general public. Board members typically serve at least one lengthy term of seven years and, importantly, do so at the pleasure of the governor who appointed them. For the past eighteen years, Republican governors have installed individuals, usually major campaign donors, on this consequential board.

The Republican party, in Georgia at least, is not known to be pro-environment – quite the opposite in fact. Since 2005 – when both the Georgia House and Senate became Republican majorities for the first time since Reconstruction – the Republican leadership has largely been controlled by anti-environment interests, making efforts to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

There are sixteen white men, two white women, and one non-white man on the current Board of Natural Resources – people who look nothing like our growing, diversifying state. Nor do they exhibit much concern (that I have observed) for the plight of underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution. Also unacceptable is the fact that these board members have little background or meaningful job experience in natural resource management, environmental science, regional planning, or other relevant fields of study.

Examples of the sort of issues that might show up on the board’s monthly agendas include: whether or not hazardous sites near your home and business must remove all contaminants; whether industries must monitor and report all of the pollutants in their wastewater discharges and/or air emissions; whether studies must be conducted to evaluate impacts of climate change on all state residents and actions taken to reduce those impacts; and whether invasive mining will be allowed to impact spectacular natural areas like the Okefenokee Swamp.

While federal laws thankfully govern many aspects of environmental protection at the state level, there remain a number of areas related to our water, air, land and wildlife in which board members have the authority and responsibility to make decisions on behalf of more than ten million Georgians.

I know something about this board because, in 1999, I was appointed to serve on it by then Gov. Roy Barnes, Georgia’s last Democrat governor. Barnes had campaigned on a promise to diversify the board – long dominated by monied interests and campaign donors, almost exclusively male and white. Being female and an environmentalist, he apparently thought I would bring some of his promised diversity. 

Barnes also appointed former Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, a conservationist, in his effort to bring much-needed balance to the Board. When we joined the board, there were several other conservation-minded individuals already serving; however, our perspective and, most importantly, our collective votes were nearly always in the minority. 

I was reappointed to the board by a Republican named Sonny Perdue in 2006, during his second campaign for governor; he had won over Barnes in an upset election in 2002 and was running again in 2006. Once Perdue was “safely” in office, I was unceremoniously removed from the board by Republican leadership in the Senate: an unpleasant story to be told another time. The other – few – conservation-minded board members were already gone when I was dismissed, having not been reappointed or otherwise disposed of.

Elections matter. Whoever wins the gubernatorial race this November will fill seats on the Georgia Board of Natural Resources, as they become available. No one that I’m aware of has suggested that this board should be filled solely with scientists, planners, and environmental advocates. Balanced representation is what we have been seeking for decades—people with diverse backgrounds, relevant skills, and broad experiences – instead of the Big Business and real estate development interests (almost always represented by white males) that have dominated the board for decades.

Will our next governor continue the “tradition” of stacking the board with people whose interests are largely financially self-serving, or will he/she appoint individuals who will make the best environmental policy decisions for all Georgians, based on science, facts, justice, and equality? 

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.