Some of the counties surrounding Albemarle Sound are among the poorest and least populated in the state. They are also the most vulnerable to rising seas, as we shall see in the final chapter.
Poverty and isolation are not particularly evident to a casual observer because families and communities are close knit. But the resources here, and the land, have been attractive to outside interests who would upset the precarious balance between rural life and land for a moment of greed.
Keeping memories alive that show how the Albemarle sustained people who worked and fished here is one way of forging strong conservation goals and pride of stewardship to counter centuries of exploitation. State, counties, non-profit and community groups are working together to bring an enduring identity to the Albemarle that will carry it into the future.
To fully appreciate the 180-degree-turn that this twenty-first century voyage takes, we must take a look at the recent past.
Seeking Environmental Justice
There was a time, maybe three decades ago, mostly forgotten now, when the wetlands south of Albemarle Sound were considered ideal for a hazardous waste incinerator. After all, when you fly over this land, what can you see? A few clusters of houses, a lot of farmland with manmade ditches, maybe some ducks or geese, tangles of swamp that defy GPS, just a bunch-a-nuthin.
Imagine these wetlands that are historically prone to hurricanes and floods housing an incinerator whose innards would, we are assured, never belch any but fine clean air (or at least cleaner than the dross that goes in) to drift over farms. Imagine the roads that would be needed to carry the massive, rumbling, trucks with their poisons. And, God forbid, imagine a spill of the worst sort of poisons that would infiltrate networks of ditches that flow to native waters.
Residents fought this injustice. How they fought it! Through public education and public meetings, and presentations to county commissioners who saw the incinerator as a plus, a way to bring jobs to a community that desperately needed them.
The people prevailed. Once they were given the details and understood what they would lose, they rose up with the tenacity of their lineage, the lineage they had inherited from their ancestors who had the grit to survive here. No, thank you, they did not want the menial, and perhaps dangerous, jobs that came with this intrusive behemoth.
There was a time, two decades ago, when the United States Navy eyed this good-fer-nuthin place with a few people and a lot of birds as a practice landing field, called an OLF, for a new line of fighter jets housed at its Oceana base in Virginia Beach. Recently settled residents in Virginia objected to noisy take-offs and landings at nearby Fentress Outlying Landing Field (OLF).
Exporting the deafening noise to this nowhere land around Albemarle Sound seemed like a good idea to the Navy, who wanted to avoid clamor from local residents. Five sites were selected, each of which would be subject to an Environmental Impact Statement required by law.
Residents here, who are serenaded by choruses of crickets and katydids on summer evenings, were appalled by the idea of noisy jets flying back and forth from Virginia to North Carolina to practice excruciatingly noisy, repetitive practice runs in this land of black bear, snow geese and tundra swans.
This was a David-and-Goliath battle without the romance of a quick victory. It was automatically assumed we could not prevail. It became an eight-year battle, and then another five-year battle.
Residents lived on tenterhooks. They set aside their lives, met in private to plan strategy, held rallies and pig pickins, organized post-card-writing campaigns, all the while haunted by the sacrifices people would be compelled to make — for example, forced sale of home and farm that had nurtured generations of families in exchange for relocation (where?) — and the losses to community life in exchange for the bones the Navy was prepared to throw into the pot.
After eight years, the Navy lost its case in court and the voluminous environmental statements that had been prepared by a firm in upper New York State were declared flawed. Another round began with another five choices, this time three in Virginia and two in the Albemarle. Finally, after thirteen long years, the Navy quietly went away and residents could listen to the katydids in peace.
During all those years of campaigning and lobbying lawmakers, activists conducted themselves with grace and dignity. There were no arrests for disorderly conduct or property damage. There was simply respectful patience and determination.
Both the incinerator and the outlying landing field were prime examples of environmental injustice.
A hazardous waste incinerator is never located near an affluent community.
Nor is an OLF. A 1990 socio-economic comparison of Virginia Beach and Washington County (Navy’s final choice on Albemarle Sound) is in order. Virginia Beach: median income $45,000, 13% of children below poverty level, 20% African American population. Washington County: median income $28,000, 29% of children below poverty level and 49% African American population.
Identity Change Develops Momentum
We’ve come a long way since those decades when wetlands were nuisances, and the coastal plain was prime ground for exploitation.
There is a highway along the south shore of the Sound that used to be considered a tedious miles-long pass-through for vacationers hurrying to a sparkling ocean and a lively Outer Banks (OBX) tourist scene worth a billion dollars annually.
Today, people are stopping along that highway south of the Sound and other highways along the north shore of the Sound.
The Albemarle area is developing its own identity; it is becoming known as the Inner Banks (IBX). It’s a special place where vacationers can slow down and discover a venerable part of the country that has been — well — forgotten by the outside world.
Communities in northeast North Carolina are capitalizing on their history and their roots. Towns have visitor centers, friendly museums or nature centers, galleries and arts centers featuring local craftsmen, boardwalks, river views, walking tours or tram rides, even tree houses for rent. Ice cream cones, too.
Here you can find an intimate step back into the history and environment of the earliest pioneers in the country.
The Albemarle is not glitzy. There are no fern bars. It’s inviting and comfortable and unhurried. And there is good fishing.
Natural areas — a network of wildlife refuges, state game lands, state parks, community parks offer visitors a place to have a picnic and photograph wildlife, or a chance to linger along a creek or hike a trail, or join a guided tour for hands-on experiences.
These collective invitations to explore the Albemarle come from loose consortiums of public and private agencies.
Non-profit groups like The Nature Conservancy and North Carolina Coastal Land Trusts acquire and broker land for conservation.
NC Land of Water, Roanoke River Partners, and Bertie Water Crescent promote eco-tourism.
Coastal Wildlife Society, NC Coastal Reserve, and the Red Wolf Coalition are among many that work to conserve eco-systems.
Support comes from federal and state initiatives. Recent rollback of protection for streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act has been reversed.
Oysters. once a staple of life in Albemarle waters but now struggling, partly because of changes in salinity and water quality, are being given helping hands. Oystermen are helping with initiatives, and, in the process, helping to promotethe industry.
Funding through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, matched by partners in North Carolina, will conserve habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds.
The state is generously appropriating money for parks and recreation and clean water trust funds. Town and county governments are seeking funding and working with non-profits to promote eco-tourism.
Seeking Green Industry
But to preserve society here, the soft tread of ecotourism and eco-education needs to be augmented by green industry. Renewable energy featuring wind farms and solar arrays are punctuating the landscape, bringing income to farmers and the community.
Offshore wind farms, not offshore oil-drilling platforms, make sense to most. Technology has brought the costs of solar and wind power into competitive range, and the environmental and human losses created by, for instance, the BP catrastophe in the Gulf of Mexico would become sad memories, not future threats in hurricane-prone seas.
To move forward, there must be political will that overcomes regressive political and industrial moves. For instance, as of June 2021 the NC legislature is considering a bill that would force communities to make connections to piped-in natural gas instead of choosing cleaner electricity in new construction. It is blandly titled Assuring Choice of Energy Service but would, in effect, limit communities’ freedom of choice.
Additionally, a bill to Study Emerging Energy Generation, crafted by Duke Energy in conference with lawmakers, is on track in the legislature. It calls for replacing six coal-fired plants with three fracked-gas facilities and seeking permits for small nuclear facilities at ratepayers’ expense. These regressive proposals fall far short of the Governor’s climate change and clean energy plans that would make North Carolina a leader in renewable energy.
There is much progress to be proud of, but we face an un settled future.