There were a few things I was prepared to ask about the new documentary “America’s Amazon,” before writer and co-producer Ben Raines hosted a screening for Lagniappe’s staff earlier this week.
Despite positive reviews coming from its initial public premiere at the Fairhope Film Festival Nov. 8, I was skeptical that a film with a run time of a little less than an hour could adequately testify to the nature of its subject, the 300-square mile Mobile-Tensaw Delta, which covers more than a quarter million acres between the Causeway to as far north as Grove Hill.
But, having been an avid reader of Raines’ environmental reporting during his 13 years at the Mobile Press-Register, which ended earlier this year when he accepted a position as executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, I knew he was capable of telling a good story. Yet as you would expect from a reporter working a beat, the tales would often unfold incrementally and as good reporting often does, create more abstract questions that remained unanswered.
Raines ended his career at the newspaper on a high note, notably with a series of stories last year on the Alabama Public Service Commission’s failure over 18 years to hold rate adjustment hearings for utility providers, which allowed (and still allows) them to reap exorbitant revenues compared to those in other states. It’s not exactly an environmental issue, but it plays into more of an “abstract” reality (stick with me) indicating what lawmakers in Alabama prioritize. Spoiler alert: It’s not the environment.
I knew in speaking to Raines earlier —for Lagniappe’s Nov. 14 cover story about the proposal to turn the delta over to the National Park Service — that his film focused on the juxtaposition between the area’s astonishing biodiversity and the state’s scant budget for enforcing environmental regulation. So I wondered whether, in a film lasting 51 minutes and some change, how he could possibly achieve it to any lasting effect.
But to my satisfaction, Raines and his team did, drawing heavily on some of the stories that made his reporting so enjoyable over the last decade. And they did with images that are nothing short of breathtaking, whether through an overhead shot of a meandering creek or a stream bank clouded in fog, the kind that tends to hover around until mid-morning.
Of course there is footage of alligators and snakes, including a scene where a snake has a mouthful of frog, but there are scenes you wouldn’t expect and are in fact pretty rare. The film takes viewers further north to see an endangered Red Hills Salamander, coaxed from his burrow by a biologist with a cricket on a wire. Raines revisits his story about the Rusty Gravedigger, a species of crawfish presumed extinct until he dug one out of a bayou near a sewage treatment facility in Daphne a few years ago.
There are images of manatees, gliding lazily below the murky surface during their seasonal journeys from Florida, and recently hatched pelicans, which featherless more resemble some alien embryo clumsily bobbing their beaks around for a meal.
Other stories from Raines’ tenure at the newspaper emerge, from the 15,000-year-old forest he documented 10 miles offshore, 60 feet underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, to a lone cypress tree somewhere off Rice Creek that has a diameter of more than 27 feet. The only reason it was spared from logging, he explained, is because it’s hollow.
The film shows the delta in all four seasons, from when it blooms to life in the spring to when it floods in the winter. In one particularly striking scene, Baldwin County real estate developer Pat Ogburn guides a boat through the trees to a place he calls a “hidden lake,” where there is no other human in sight and the fishing is great.
But at about the midpoint mark, the film takes on a more serious note. That unchecked logging that scoured the delta for more than a century also filled it with runoff. Development around its perimeter compounded the problem and in our lifetime, obliterated native mussel species and much of the lower delta’s seagrass beds. Chemical plants upstream regularly deposit mercury and arsenic, which may be why the local osprey population is two to three times less productive than those in the Florida panhandle.
While the delta has survived, it hasn’t thrived in an environment where its hydrology has been completely altered by river damming throughout the state. Migratory fish species have declined as they have been unable to spawn in historic breeding areas further north. On top of it all, there is an underfunded law enforcement agency whose director admitted to Raines that Alabama’s legislators “choose” to run a minimal environmental program.
“We have laws on the books that address these issues but they aren’t enforced in any meaningful way,” Raines said after the screening. “ADEM is underfunded by the state.”
He said the most immediate danger to the delta was in the runoff, which has a silent and invisible tendency to smother river bottoms and bays, similar to what happened in Daphne’s D’Olive Creek and bay over the last 30 years. While the state may continue to be reluctant to commit any significant taxpayer money to the effort, Raines said the delta can benefit from the hundreds of millions of dollars that may come from criminal fines as a result of the BP oil spill.
After its Mobile premier at the Saenger Theatre Dec. 3, “America’s Amazon” is scheduled to air four times on Alabama Public Television in January. Afterward, Raines is hoping the film is seen by legislators and will become a part of grade school curriculum.
“The delta is an incredible resource and the time is ripe to make some changes,” he said. “I think we have a world class piece of nature here and we need to do what’s required to protect and conserve it.”
FILM PREMIERE: “AMERICA’S AMAZON”
The film, “America’s Amazon,” is a densely packed, locally produced documentary on the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, covering everything from the ancient climatic forces that shaped its evolution to its remarkable biological richness to current issues putting increased pressure on its fragile ecosystems. Saenger Theatre. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the film starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5. For more information visit mobilesaenger.com or americasamazon.net.