Southern Environmental Law Center harnesses law to protect Alabama’s environment.
Written by Katie Turpen
Photo by Beau Gustafson
While driving from the Tennessee Valley all the way down to the Gulf Coast, Keith Johnston has spent time admiring Alabama’s ever-changing landscape. Today, as managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s (SELC) Birmingham office, he recognizes the natural beauty throughout one of the most biologically diverse states in the country is in jeopardy.
“We’re blessed here with all these natural resources, but we’re not always good stewards,” Johnston says. “We need to grow wisely and protect our resources.”
SELC champions the protection of national resources and promotes clean air and water, better transportation methods, living shorelines, and renewable energy at multiple levels of government. Environmental advocate Rick Middleton founded SELC nearly 30 years ago when he saw a void for environmental advocacy in the Southeastern region. Headquartered in Charlottesville, Virginia, SELC currently has more than 60 attorneys working across offices located in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama.
SELC’s Birmingham office closely coordinates with the Atlanta office and with other law and policy experts throughout the region. Johnston and his team of attorneys—Barry Brock, Sarah Stokes, and Christina Andreen—all share a love for Alabama’s culture and heritage.
“There is a deep sense of place in this office,” says Johnston, noting how the team’s passion fuels their commitment to tackling major projects, which are outlined below.
Managing Water Resources
Alabama has thousands of miles of streams and rivers with more types of plants and animals living in them than any other state in the nation. Johnston knows that’s not something to take for granted. “We have abundant water resources here to protect,” Johnston says. “A big thing we are working on right now is coming up with a statewide water management plan.”
Unlike other states, Alabama lacks a concrete plan for its water resources. This void is in the process of being filled due to advocacy by SELC and the Alabama Rivers Alliance, a statewide network of groups working for protection of local water resources. The groups’ efforts spurred Governor Robert Bentley to order the draft of a state plan with science-based recommendations that address Alabama’s myriad water demands.
Creating Living Shorelines
Alabama’s coastlines boast endless stretches of beautiful, sandy beaches. Currently, seawalls are structures widely used to fight erosion in these areas; however, SELC is looking at better alternatives, believing these seawalls can actually have adverse affects. The organization is currently working with federal, state, and local authorities developing guidelines for living shorelines. These shorelines are created by planting marsh grass and constructing reef breakwaters that reduce wave energy and manage sand movement. “Our main goal is trying to keep these shorelines from eroding,” Johnston says, emphasizing that these wetlands will preserve aquatic ecosystems.
Using Renewable Energy
According to the SELC, Alabama currently sits 48th nationally in solar jobs per capita. The organization wants to open the solar market in this region through fair tax treatment and common-sense financing. “We’re promoting the transition of older fossil fuels into solar and wind,” says Johnston.
SELC intervened in Alabama Power’s proposed purchase of 500 megawatts of renewable energy to ensure the plan delivers truly clean energy. They are also focused on responsible energy extraction and are drafting regulations for a proposed strip-mining operation that would extract millions of barrels of oil sands, overwhelming a region of northwest Alabama.
Shaping Birmingham’s Transportation Future
The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) has begun construction on the first two miles of a proposed 52-mile bypass north of Birmingham called the Northern Beltline. SELC is actively opposed to the project, asserting it will worsen traffic, increase pollution, and negatively impact the headwaters of the Black Warrior and Cahaba rivers. “We want better use of highway dollars than for this outdated loop around the city,” Johnston explains. “We need to fix what we already have.” Therefore, as an alternative, SELC is promoting the repairing and updating of the city’s existing bridges and roadways such as the intersection between I-65 and I-20/59.
SELC partners with many local groups such as the Black Warrior River Keeper, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving water quality and habit throughout the Black Warrior River watershed. “We encourage people to get involved in these local, grassroots organizations,” Johnston says. He addresses the city’s younger generation in particular as being a true catalyst for change in the city. “Birmingham has a lot of great parks and our young people enjoy these outdoor opportunities,” he says. “We need to preserve them.”
Johnston has found a special niche at the intersection of his two passions: law and the environment. Growing up in North Alabama, he took full advantage of the outdoors whether it was hunting, canoeing, or fishing. He eventually earned a degree in national resources, worked out west for a time with the U.S. Forest Service, and ultimately ended up in law school.
“It’s definitely given me a unique perspective on day-to-day things,” says Johnston. Johnston wants people to realize that while litigation is a part of what SELC does, it is only used as a tool of last resort. The close-knit team’s main mission is to create real awareness and powerful change on issues surrounding the environment. “We want people to know the environment is an issue worth fighting for,” Johnston says. “We encourage the community to support these issues whether it’s through politics or even just through conversations with their friends.”•
For more, visit southernenvironment.org.