When you gaze upon Georgia’s marshes, can you see the hand of Sydney Lanier?  The poet’s “Marshes of Glynn” inspired generations of Americans to connect their wetlands and seas with “the greatness of God.”  Could Lanier be considered an environmentalist?

Maybe, maybe not.  This story is about Georgia’s first environmentalists.  And accepting, of course, that the Native Americans cared for this land like none other, whom might we acknowledge, from the modern 20th Century environmental viewpoint, as our pioneers?

Let me let you gaze upon the marsh and see the hand of Eugene Odum, Jane Yarn, Bob Haney, Charles Wharton, Rock Howard and Lester Maddox.  They and many others were part of one of the South’s first real environmental battles.  It involves the Georgia coast.

Chris Manganiello, Executive Director of the Georgia Rivers Network and a writer of environmental histories, talks about that battle in this podcast, recorded at a remarkable gathering of minds, the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium in February 2016.

“Odum was often referred to as the father of modern ecology,” Manganiello says of our first subject.  “He published the first ecology textbook in 1953.  What he possessed was a keen ability to translate scientific information into a language for general audiences.”

In 1966, Odum was a biology professor at the University of Georgia when a phosphate mining proposal emerged on Georgia’s coast.  The chemical giant Kerr-McGee wanted to lease 25,000 acres of coastal marshland, causing a huge concern among many residents.

Odum used his influence to educate people about the economic value of the marshes.  His hippy students would take his message into the world of the young and progressive.  And our second subject, Jane Yarn, would take his message into the elite circles of Atlanta.

“Like many women of her era, her social network would revolve around these garden clubs,” Manganiello says of her genteel, prim-and-proper society.  “However, she thought these organizations abounded with women whose talents were being wasted.”

Yarn used her thick contact book to organize a letter-writing campaign to stop the mines.  What came of the efforts of Yarn, Odum and many others was the state’s most important piece of environmental legislation, the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970.

The act, signed into law by Governor Lestor Maddox, not only stopped Kerr-McGee.  But it ensured that we today would enjoy the marshes.  And it sparked a whole new generation of environmentalists.  The four-year campaign didn’t have to end this way.

“In the end, the state did not support a vision of property rights that accepted an ‘anything goes’ future,” Manganiello says. “Instead, the state accepted a role to protect the public trust in a vision that expected property owners to act and own nature responsibly.”

The act was transformational.  It showed how a business-friendly, home-rule supportive governor nonetheless could support robust regulation protecting the earth.  And it rippled through environmental discussions elsewhere in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

“The Marshlands Act asks Georgians to stand at the edge of the marsh as Sydney Lanier [did],” Manganiello says. “But, I would argue, perhaps, to stand with their backs to the marsh, and to look landward, because that’s where the fate of the marsh can be found.”

This lecture is an excellent guide through an amazing time.  And when you think about all the other movements happening in the late 1960’s, like Civil Rights and Vietnam, the story of the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act becomes even more extraordinary.

This is the tenth and final audio production that Savannah Podcast will be presenting from the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium.  These lectures were organized by the Ossabaw Island Foundation.  You can find all of the others by using this link.

Thanks to the Ossabaw Island Foundation – not only for their support of new research in the field of environmental history on the Georgia coast – but also for their support of the means to publicize it online.  Buy the book from this symposium when it comes out!

Photo: Eugene Odom; Credit: University of Georgia