The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
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Personal climate-change remedies have a wide cumulative impact and are part of the solution, so don't give up

Tom Ptak is assistant professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Texas State University. This story was originally published by The Conversation.

The average American’s everyday interactions with energy sources are limited. They range from turning appliances on or off, to commuting, to paying utility bills.

The connections between those acts and rising global temperatures may seem distant.

However, individuals hold many keys to unlocking solutions to climate change – the biggest challenge our species currently faces – which is perhaps why the fossil fuel industry spent decades misleading and misinforming the public about it.

I’m an assistant professor of geography and environmental studies at Texas State University. My research explores how geography affects the complex relationships between societies, energy and contemporary environmental challenges. I’ve found that the human element is critical for developing creative, effective and sustainable solutions to climate challenges.

There’s a large and growing body of evidence showing that individuals can have a major impact on climate change in a number of ways. Citizen action can compel utilities to increase renewable energy and governments to enact strong climate action laws. When enough individuals make changes that lower daily household energy consumption, huge emissions reductions can result. Consumer demand can compel businesses to pursue climate and environmental sustainability.

These actions combined could bridge the “emissions gap”: the significant difference between the greenhouse gas emissions expected globally and how much they need to drop in the next few decades to avoid catastrophic climate change.

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Ogle2UT Libraries history project records recollections and remembrances of terrible Smokies wildfires

The results of an ambitious effort by University of Tennessee Libraries to capture the history and personal memories of the devastating 2016 Great Smoky Mountains wildfires are now accessible online five years after the disaster.

The Smokies fires of 2016, which came to a horrible head over that Thanksgiving weekend, killed at least 14 people and countless domestic pets and wild animals. Gale-driven flames burned through thousands of acres in the national park before escaping the boundary and destroying thousands of homes and other structures in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and smaller communities throughout Sevier County.

"The social, cultural, economic, political, and natural impacts of this event are still being calculated," according to UT Libraries.

Rising from the Ashes: The Chimney Tops 2 Wildfires Oral History Project, organized with the city of Gatlinburg and the Anna Porter library, collected 140 video and audio interviews with those impacted by the fires, including survivors, government leaders, first responders, scientists, clergy, journalists and mental health experts.

“This project documents one of the most momentous events in modern Tennessee history — in the voices of those who lived it,” said Steve Smith, dean of the UT Libraries in a news release.

“The collected stories document more than tragedy, however; they testify to the resilience of the human spirit. Our team is honored to help preserve these stories for history, study, learning, and research.”

All interviews are preserved within the UT Libraries’ Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives.

The 2016 Thanksgiving wildfire, which began on the Chimneys deep within the national park, was the largest in the eastern U.S. since the 1940s. It burned 17,000 acres, injured at least 200 people and forced the evacuation of thousands, according to UT Libraries. 

"Visitors to the Rising from the Ashes website can approach the topic through different lenses such as the evacuation efforts, the disaster response and recovery, or the ecological impact; hear from medical personnel, business owners, or individuals directly affected by the wildfires; or simply browse through the recorded interviews," according to a release announcing the final posting of the project.


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From fungi to trees, Smokies life gets back on track five years after conflagration

News Sentinel: Forest life blossoms five years after devastating Smokies wildfires

Researchers are tallying recovering species and noting some surprises five years after deadly wildfires tore through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and adjacent communities, according to News Sentinel science writer Vincent Gabrielle.

Fire-dependent species such as the table mountain pine are seizing new land as a result of the wildfires, and some scientists have been surprised by the proliferation of chestnut saplings. Those saplings are the progeny of remaining chestnut root systems, though few if any survive to maturity. The chestnut was largely eliminated from the American landscape more than 100 years ago by a blight that eliminated one of the most productive mast species in the Southern Appalachians.

Scientists are also intrigued by the reappearance of certain fungi decimated by the 2016 fires, which originated near the Chimneys and ultimately spread up Bullhead and then down into Twin Creeks and the surrounding developed communities. Fifteen people were killed and thousands of structures destroyed.

A lot of Smokies habitat is fire dependent, but few wildfires have been allowed to burn in the backcountry over the history of the park. The fire and its aftermath provide researchers a unique opportunity to determine the effects the fire had on the natural landscape and accompanying plants, fungi, trees and animals.


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UTK J-school students wax eloquent on the environmental issues that confront us every day

University of Tennessee journalism professor Mark Littmann asks students in his environmental writing class every semester to write short sketches about environmental issues they may witness during any given day. Such an assignment requires an almost poetical approach.

We published one such UTK environmental writing sketch last spring, the infamous story of the orphaned mayonnaise jar of Fort Sanders, and Hellbender Press decided to go with three this fall, because they are that good.

The disposable containers

It is Friday afternoon and the mother of three is at the grocery self-checkout buying her family’s food for the week. Her squeaky, gray shopping cart is domed with 12-packs of Coke, single-serve yogurt, single-packaged snacks, and the typical food staples that her children beg her for. She likes purchasing the individually packed snacks because they fit perfectly in the paper bag school lunches that she gives to her kids every day. That is the beauty of convenience.

Double bag the milk. The eggs and sliced bread get their own bag. Frozen foods are to be separated. She continues to place her cardboard-boxed foods in the plastic bags handily provided to her. The mother pays for her food and crumples her receipt.

When she gets home, she piles her grocery bags on her kitchen island. Carefully taking out each item she bought, she throws the plastic bags on the side counter out of her way. What is she supposed to do with these?

Her kids rush indoors as they get dropped off from school, ready for the weekend. They raid the fridge and each cracks open a chilled can of Coke. It is their favorite drink while they watch the afternoon cartoons. The half-empty cans sit on the coffee table for days before they are emptied.

The mother wonders why her trash bins fill up before the garbage men come each week. She thinks maybe she should start looking into buying Tupperware that will help with that, but washing dishes seems like such a hassle for a mother of three.

That is the beauty of convenience.

-Onate Cittlali

 Semi-conscious environmental awareness

The student jumps into the shower while brushing his teeth to conserve water. After completing his morning routine, the student drives 15 minutes downtown with a full tank of gas.

He parks his car in a designated spot. Before class, he makes a stop at a vending machine, grabbing his third soda for the week and swearing it’s his last one. He places the empty bottle into the recycling bin because that’s the right thing to do.

Upon completing his classes, the student rushes to his car. He drives a few minutes to the immediate city outskirts. He parks and enters a pizza kitchen to start his shift.

He dons his apron and sweats next to the constantly operating oven, which only turns off between the kitchen’s closing and opening. The student grabs one of the “92-percent biodegradable” Styrofoam cups to get more soda.

He goes through three cups, along with three pairs of latex-free gloves, during his shift.

As the pizza boxes pile up next to the dumpster, the student heads to his car after work. He drives 20 minutes back to his house, passing a stream of litter on the highway.  “At least I don’t do that,” the student thinks. The needle on the gas gauge begins to sway toward empty.

He gets home and jumps into the shower, brushing his teeth to conserve water.

-Keenan Thomas

 An urban habitat

The long yellow school bus screeches to a halt at the top of the little neighborhood street at exactly 6:40 a.m.; the brakes are sensitive to the nippy October morning air.  

Parents hug their little ones goodbye, wishing them a good day at school – and imploring them to eat the apple in their lunchboxes. The smiling driver closes the doors after the last anxious third-grader climbs the steep bus steps.

It’s a bumpy ride, but the warmth of the bus heaters is putting the boy in the seventh row back to sleep. The girl behind him though likes to paint pictures on the fogged window, with giggles spilling from her and her friend.  Several older kids are finishing homework from the night before. The bus is filled with a chorus of whispers and snores, harmonizing with the whirring of the bus engine as it bounces down the road.

There is only one little girl, at the very front of the bus, who does not join in on the muted chaos of the morning. Head propped up against the buzzing window, she stares absently out of it.  

Outside is a forest of fluorescent lamp posts under which a small herd of nursing home residents take shelter to smoke. Little sedans sleep in the dewy grass. An early morning runner bounds out from behind a bush.  

It seems the tallest trees are chimneys producing fluffy clouds in the cold. She turns away from the window, for there is nothing to see. No one has their nose pressed tightly against the damp window, crowding to get a peek at what roams just outside.

They missed the deer by 10 years.

-Ashlyn Smith

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Conservation group weighs in on parkway proposals: NPCA urges full Environmental Impact Statement amid threat to Southern Appalachian habitats

 (An unedited version of this story was published in error. This is the final version.)

Proposed construction of an unfinished section of Foothills Parkway from Wears Valley to the Gatlinburg Spur would traverse 9.8 miles of natural beauty that is home to multiple protected species.

The project dates to 1944, when Congress mandated construction of a scenic 72-mile, slow-paced highway featuring panoramic views to run from Cocke County west to the Little Tennessee River. The parkway is complete from Tallassee, Tennessee to Wears Valley west of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Plans call for the Foothills Parkway to skirt the entire Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from one end to the other, as previously reported by Hellbender Press.

The National Park Service (NPS) encourages public input and is reading comments received during a recent public comment period that ended Oct. 31. The park service will announce a new round of public comments  this spring after publishing an initial draft of the project’s scope.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit supporter and monitor of national parks across the country, has already stated its concerns about the proposed highway, which park service officials acknowledge hasn't even been funded yet. Chief among its problems with the project is the lack of an Environmental Impact Statement.

"NPCA has been engaged on issues related to the Foothills Parkway since the 1990s. We are concerned that the National Park Service has not conducted a full Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for these proposed projects," NPCA Senior Program Manager Jeffrey Hunter said in comments collected earlier this year regarding the project.

"The significant impacts of some of the proposed alternatives in the planning document demand further study and analysis before proceeding. Such further study would be best accomplished by a full EIS. Furthermore, these projects should not be looked at together outside the context of a full EIS," Hunter wrote. The conservation organization also cited concerns about air and water quality, loss of mature forest and the diminishment of natural resources such as the Walker Sisters cabin near Metcalf Bottoms.

The project is a conceptualization from the early 1940s to relieve anticipated traffic on the Tennessee side of the park, which became an extended seven-decade affair. A short section of parkway between I-40 and Highway 321 near Cosby, at the eastern end, and a 33-mile stretch between Wears Valley and the Little Tennessee River at the western end, are finished.

Completion of 9.8-mile section 8D of the parkway would fill a major missing link to the only unfinished, congressionally mandated parkway left in the United States. The most likely route, depending on the outcome of environmental studies, will be to climb the north slope of Cove Mountain and then run along the long, narrow ridge of the mountain to Gatlinburg.

If approved, the challenge would be to construct the new section while limiting environmental damage associated with roads built through diverse natural habitats.

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We are cutting through forests we need more than ever

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Jennifer Devine is an associate professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Texas State University.

Every year the world loses an estimated 25 million acres (10 million hectares) of forest, an area larger than the state of Indiana.

Nearly all of it is in the tropics.

Tropical forests store enormous quantities of carbon and are home to at least two-thirds of the world’s living species, so deforestation has disastrous consequences for climate change and conservation. Trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, slowing its buildup in the atmosphere – but when they are burned or logged, they release their stored carbon, fueling further warming. Tropical forest loss generates nearly 50% more greenhouse gases than does the global transportation sector.

At the 2021 U.N. conference on climate change in Glasgow, more than 100 world leaders pledged on Nov. 1 to halt deforestation by 2030.

In the Declaration on Forests and Land Use, countries outlined their strategy, which focuses on supporting trade and development policies that promote sustainable production and consumption. Governments and private companies have pledged over $19.2 billion to support these efforts.

From my research on social and environmental issues in Latin America, I know that four consumer goods are responsible for the majority of global deforestation: beef, soy, palm oil, and wood pulp and paper products. Together these commodities are responsible for the loss of nearly 12 million acres (5 million hectares) annually. There’s also a fifth, less publicized key driver: organized crime, including illegal drug trafficking.

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Knox County increases penalties for littering with fines going to illegal dump cleanup

The Knox County Commission in November voted to approve an ordinance further criminalizing the act of littering in Knox County, according to Hard Knox Wire.

According to the new measure, anyone caught littering could be fined up to $500 for the offense, depending on the amount and type of trash involved. Convicted offenders may also be sentenced to up to 160 hours of trash-pickup duties.

The provision also gives Knox County citizens the right to remove trash from rights of way at their own discretion

Littering is already illegal under state law, but the new ordinance allows Knox County to levy its own punishments. For instance, all money collected in the enforcement of the new ordinance will be placed into an illegal-dump cleanup fund maintained by the county.

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Clemson University honors Smokies chief for conservation excellence

Superintendent Cassius Cash 2021

Clemson University awarded Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash the Walter T. Cox Award for conservation excellence for his dedication to preserving the natural resources of the most visited national park in the United States.

The Clemson University Institute for Parks, in conjunction with the George B. Hartsog Awards Progran, bestows the annual honor "to recognize individuals who demonstrate exemplary leadership in the field of conservation," according to a news release from the park service.

"The Walter T. Cox Award recognizes park administrators who exemplify Dr. Cox’s distinguished career in education and public service. Superintendent Cash was one of five individuals recognized this year alongside other national and state park leaders." 

The institute said it gave Cash the award because of his "sustained achievement, public service and leadership in conserving and managing public lands. including the most biodiverse and most visited national park in the U.S."

In acceptance of the award, Cash acknowledged the difficulties faced by managers of wild lands and other public conservation resources during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Leading staff in providing high-quality services and protecting resources during the pandemic, coupled with an extreme rise in visitation, has been challenging,” Cash said in the release.

“I’ve been inspired by our staff, partners, and communities as we work together to care for the park and to continue to welcome people to this space for rejuvenation and healing. It is an honor to be recognized for this work.” 

Visit Clemson Institute for Parks for more information about the award and a full list of honorees.  

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Citing a dearth of grocery stores and healthy food options, Memphis officials mull action 

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

"In the poorest Memphis neighborhoods, gas stations serve as the nearest and sometimes the only store with groceries for nearby communities, albeit ones offering unhealthy fast and convenience foods. The University of Memphis noted that the city’s overall poverty rate is 21.7 percent, and rates are even higher among communities of color and among children, with a child poverty rate of 35 percent."

In some areas of Memphis, there are more gas stations than grocery stores. While a citywide moratorium placed a hold on new gas stations, businesses are still seeking permission from City Council to open against the wishes of local communities.

In March, City Council voted in favor of halting permitting of any new gas stations. Businesses now need to go through the Land Use Control Board of Memphis and Shelby County for permission, and their request would need final approval from City Council. 

“It seemed like every week we were passing an ordinance to allow two or three more service stations and we didn’t  feel like we had a handle on it. We felt like that needed to calm down,” said Councilman Jeff Warren.

At an October meeting, council members debated whether Broad Avenue needed another gas station (and convenience store). Hundreds of residents in the nearby neighborhoods signed a petition urging council members to vote against allowing another gas station in their community. 

“We do not want nor need a gas station at this site. That would make four gas stations within a mile radius. . .I fully expect you to listen to the money, rather than the neighbors,” said one resident.

Council members concluded the meeting without making a decision, opting to delay the vote for a month, but the response from local residents was clear: there were more than enough gas stations in communities needing other types of stores. 

“Who in their right mind would add a fourth gas station on a street that’s a mile long?” said another resident.

Over the span of 20 to 30 years, Memphis officials permitted gas station after gas station to open throughout the city to the point that “there’s 10 times more per population than Nashville has,” said Warren. 

Gas service stations are a lucrative business. According to Forbes, the market relies on minimizing the distance that consumers have to travel, and competition means that at any given intersection, gas stations are often located on each corner. 

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TVA project manager pleads guilty to falsifying reports


Hard Knox Wire: Failure to disclose financial conflicts could put TVA manager in prison

A former senior project manager at the Tennessee Valley Authority could spend up to five years in federal prison after he admitted to falsifying financial disclosure reports over several years.

TVA is the largest public electricity provider in the nation and is in the midst of a fraught effort to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels and reduce its carbon output.

James Christopher “Chris” Jenkins, 60, of Chattanooga, entered a guilty plea on Friday to one count of making a false official statement, according to a spokesperson from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Hard Knox Wire reported.

He was accused of failing to disclose personal financial information during a conflict of interest probe, among other charges. 

 He faces a maximum prison sentence of five years plus up to three years of supervised release and $250,000 in fines when he’s sentenced in March by U.S. District Court Judge Travis R. McDonough. 

FBI Special Agent in Charge Joe Carrico said the case was an example of the bureau’s commitment to fighting corruption. 

“There is zero tolerance for those who exploit their official position for personal gain. It erodes public confidence and undermines the Rule of Law,” Carrico said. “We want the people we serve to know the FBI along with our law enforcement partners will hold those accountable who betray the public's trust.”


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