Saving America’s Amazon

Ben Raines / NewSouth Books / 200 pages

Alabama is known for many things, including beautiful Gulf Coast beaches, the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, steel, peanuts, the music of Muscle Shoals, and college football. It is also home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. In Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation’s Most Biodiverse River System, author Ben Raines—who has covered Alabama and the Gulf Coast region for 20 years as an environmental reporter—weaves a story about the geology, history, ecology, and destruction of the Mobile River Basin, a 44,000-square-mile collection of hardwood forest, cypress swamps, wetlands, and grasslands that provide habitat to an abundance of birds, insects, amphibians, mammals, and other reptiles and invertebrates, including new species identified every year. 

The ecological complexity of the region provides a foundation for the system’s remarkable diversity. The basin’s 450 species of freshwater fish represent approximately a third of all species found in the United States. Eighteen turtle species are in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta—a greater number than in any other delta globally. More oak species adorn a single hillside on the banks of the Alabama River than anywhere else in the world. This diversity, however, has not prevented the basin’s ongoing destruction via dams; industrial, agricultural, and residential pollution; insufficient regulation of Alabama’s timber industry; and wholly inadequate environmental protection laws. As a result, more species extinctions have been documented in the basin than anywhere else in the continental United States, and hundreds more species are threatened with extinction. 

Through eloquent prose and exceptional photography, Raines makes the case for protection of this region “before it falls to ruin, one species, one acre, one stream at a time.” The key, according to Raines, is to “protect the edges”—where the water meets the land and where biodiversity is at its peak—from the toxic runoff, trash, and mud from eroded soil that is devastating the basin and its delta. To do this, Alabama’s environmental protection laws must be strengthened and the agencies responsible for the enforcement of those laws must be given the political green light to take on the entities responsible for killing the ecosystem through a thousand cuts. America’s Amazon deserves no less.

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