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Saving America’s Amazon: The threat to our nation’s most biodiverse river

In this moment of climate change and increasing exploitation of the planet’s land and waters, it is urgent that we act on big ideas for conserving the planet’s biodiversity. But, to save a place, we must see it as valuable. In Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation’s Most Biodiverse River (2020) Ben Raines takes us deep into one of those places and makes a passionate case for its protection. Beautifully written and illustrated, this book introduces us to a little appreciated watershed – the Mobile River system and specifically the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. This is the landscape that ignited the passion of renowned biologist, naturalist, and author E.O. Wilson to dedicate his life to the study of nature. In his autobiography, Naturalist (1994), he devotes a whole chapter to ‘Alabama Dreaming’. So, it is not a surprise that he authored the book’s foreword in which he calls on future generations to conserve this landscape’s timeless treasures. 

The book is a series of essays that explore the unique geography and geology of the region and its rich array of plant and animal life. Chapters in the book take us to its specialized habitats such the rare plants of the bogs and the giant seafood nursery that is Mobile Bay. It introduces us to human’s earliest settlement in the region and how Indigenous peoples depended on the richness of the teeming fish in the rivers, the shell fish, and cared for plant gardens on islands in the river and bay.  This is an important contribution to the growing list of examples of Indigenous cultivation of the landscape that, because it differed from European ideas of agriculture, was not recognized as such by these newcomers.

Another chapter documents the impact of dams on the once plentiful migratory fish of the region. I remember years ago reading an account written by Henry David Thoreau in 1830 about a canoe trip on the Concord and Merrimack rivers. Dams already were blocking the fish migrations and he wrote “Poor shad!”  left to “inquire humbly at the mouths of rivers if man has perchance left them free to enter.”  Saving America’s Amazon provides the heart-breaking photographic evidence not available from earlier times that is even more powerful than those words. Dams are only one of the destructive forces impacting the region. Increasing sediment levels, chemical pollutants, and habitat destruction have caused over 90 species to go extinct and over a hundred are endangered.

Raines makes a strong case for saving the rich natural resources of the Mobile river system and delta, E.O. Wilson’s timeless treasures, from past and still looming threats. And while there are no easy solutions, there is a growing consensus that broad swaths of our planet need to be protected to conserve its biodiversity. E. O. Wilson has proposed that protecting half the planet is the necessary amount of marine and land habitats required to save 80 percent of the world’s species. More recently a global scientific consensus has emerged around a more specific formula – to conserve 30 percent of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030. But can this be achieved? 

Saving America’s Amazon is now on a shelf in my library along with Pulitzer prize winning author Tony Hiss’s recent book Rescuing the Planet: Protecting Half the Land to Heal the Earth (2021). Both books serve as powerful testaments to why these outsized conservation dreams must come true. Both books cover the science and the politics of landscape scale conservation and showcase the wonders of nature. However, Rescuing the Planet is a collection of hopeful tales of innovative and successful conservation efforts led by Indigenous People, community activists, land trusts, visionary leaders, and caring local citizens. This is not yet the tone of the final chapter in Saving America’s Amazon. Although the book demonstrates the value of the Mobile Bay and its watershed, its conservation is a human enterprise and the will to preserve this treasure still hangs in the balance.