Georgia Conservancy President muddies the water on harbor deepening

A couple of days ago, Georgia Conservancy president Pierre Howard published an op-ed in the Savannah Morning News: “Deepen port, protect resources”. At first, the piece might have seemed a blessing to proponents of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project and the plans to spend half a billion dollars to dredge the river.

Howard seemed to strike a rare conciliatory tone in the brewing controversy, and also seemed to give a leading environmental organization’s stamp of approval to the project:

At the same time, we recognize that the harbor deepening will cause some environmental damage to the fresh water marshes and to species in the Savannah River. We are convinced that the best outcome for harbor deepening lies in making sure that the damage is mitigated to the greatest extent possible.

As we work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to put adequate mitigation measures in place, we are focused on creating conditions that make it possible for both the port and the river to prosper.

But I started getting negative feedback almost immediately from friends and others who have been following the issue. Howard’s upbeat stance about the project seemed to conflict with the perceived mission of an environmental group like the Georgia Conservancy.

Mary Landers explores some of those issues in today’s SMN: “Conservancy’s harbor stance riles other enviros”.

And this is where things get weird. It seems Howard signed a much stronger and more detailed letter about potentially flawed mitigation and other issues in the Corps of Engineers plan. That letter was written by Will Berson in the Savannah office of the Georgia Conservancy. But Berson and the only other local employee were fired abruptly two weeks ago.

From today’s piece:

Howard said [the op-ed and the letter] don’t contradict, but have different purposes.

“An op-ed is an op-ed and a comment is a comment,” he said. “An op-ed is nothing more than trying to explain to the public where we’re coming from. Our hope and belief is that there’s adequate mitigation in place so we can support the deepening.

“I don’t think there’s any substantive difference between them.”

That’s not how Dave Kyler, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, sees it.

“It’s impossible to reconcile the two,” Kyler said. “One would have to be profoundly demented to say what he said in the paper after filing those comments.”

In the face of further questions, Howard may not have come across as demented but he did seem disengaged:

“It’s none of your business if the op-ed is at odds with something Will Berson thought,” Howard said.

Howard also downplayed his group’s influence over the deepening decision.

“The Georgia Conservancy is not going to determine if the harbor is deepened or not,” he said. “We’re trying to do everything we can as it goes forward for the environment to be protected. That’s our job. I came out of retirement to do it,” said the former lieutenant governor of Georgia.

“In this area of endeavor people always try to pick apart anything you say. The words speak for themselves; people can interpret them any way they like.”

Maybe, if it’s such a burden to explain the Georgia Conservancy’s position, the former Lt. Governor should go back into retirement.

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