Ducktown Smoke: The Fight over One of the South's Greatest Environmental Disasters

By Duncan Maysilles | Go to book overview

9
POWER DAMS,
WHITEWATER RAFTING,
AND THE
RECLAMATION OF THE
DUCKTOWN DESERT,
1916–2010

The Ducktown Desert remained after the smoke suits ended. Ducktown smoke litigation was never about restoring the badlands. Farmers and loggers sued for damages to their crops and timber. The state of Georgia sued for injunctive power to force reduction in the amount of smelter smoke. None of the litigants sued for restoration of forests to the naked hills, nor did the courts suggest it. The settlement agreements between the state and the copper companies, providing only for arbitration of smoke claims and a modest limitation of sulfur releases during the growing season, said nothing about reclamation. So far as the state, the farmers, and the timber owners were concerned, the Ducktown Desert was a fait accompli for which there was no practical remedy under the law. What was done was done.1

The enormous scale of the destruction staggered the imagination. Fifty square miles of Southern Appalachian hardwood forest had been leveled for the mining industry. In many places, even the stumps had been removed for firewood, leaving nothing to retain the soil. Decades of sulfur dioxide smoke killed remaining old growth and suppressed the new. Logging and smeltering in an environmentally susceptible area left the landscape bare and exposed to the powerful erosive force of sixty annual inches of rainfall. Poor grazing practices compounded the damage. In the center lay an area of thirtysix square miles of red, treeless, badly eroded land—an area roughly one and a half times the size of New York’s Manhattan Island.2

The damage occurred in a pattern of concentric rings centered upon the smelting complexes at Copperhill and Isabella. Richard A. Wood, a researcher with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), provided a typical description in his 1942 report, “Erosion Control and Reforestation of the Copper Basin.” The outer ring contained the area of least damage; it was “covered with a thin stand of sedge grass and occasional scrub oaks and other inferior hardwoods.” The outer ring had few gullies, but “a considerable amount of sheet erosion” was nonetheless occurring because of the lack of mature

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