Ray Vaughan.

With what environmental organization are you affiliated?

I am executive director of WildLaw.

What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?

WildLaw is a nonprofit environmental law firm that represents hundreds of community, environmental, and conservation organizations around the country. We work mainly in the Southeast, but occasionally we take cases in other parts of the country or with national scope. For every case that sets a national precedent, there are a thousand special places that need enforcement of the precedent. WildLaw strategically builds legal capacity for the people defending those places.

There is no perfect world, no best-case scenario, no mission accomplished; there is only the world, the scenario, the mission. Life is about struggle. Those who do not struggle do not live. The struggle, the striving for something better with some success, is the best-case scenario. Of course, too many people are condemned to do nothing but struggle, without any improvement or hope. That is the worst-case scenario, and it is all too common, and inexcusable, in a world with so many resources.

What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?

I read a lot of difficult, boring environmental analysis documents, cases, regulations, laws, legal briefs, administrative records, etc. I then write a lot of difficult, boring documents in response to those. Occasionally, I deal with the personnel, finance, and other administrative duties required by running an organization with a $600,000-a-year budget and offices in five states. Then I go home to see what my kids did that day and spend some time with them and my wife. After the kids go to bed, I often walk three to six miles, listening to music.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

I have always been drawn to the outdoors and finding both natural beauty and existential meaning in it. As a kid, I spent much time hiking and knocking around in local woods and streams, such as they were. In college, I studied religion, philosophy, and natural resources and went backpacking, spelunking, and canoeing. I went to law school because it was all I could get into and get my dad to pay for, so I went to the cheapest one I could get into. Drank through law school with plans to be an environmental lawyer, but there were no real environmental protection jobs in law in Alabama. So, instead of moving to another state to find a job, I created my own.

How many emails are currently in your inbox?

Ten. I get an average of 75 emails a day. It used to be close to 200, but I got off a list that had lots of static, irrelevant messages on it, and that eliminated about 75 useless emails a day. I then learned how to use spam filters well; that got rid of most of the 50 spam messages I got each day. The rest is work-related email, and I try to be very diligent in filtering, reading, and responding to what I get as soon as I can.

Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?

It is a tie between government bureaucrats who use their positions to fight progress and open government and certain “holier than thou” people in environmental organizations who think their ideas, policies, and positions are perfect and beyond question.

Who’s nicer than you would expect?

Many second-level officials in the Bush administration are some of the nicest, most professional and helpful people I have ever met in my life. I am talking about the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries and the folks who work with them. Despite major differences in policy and the fact that we sue them more than just about anyone, most of those people still take my calls and bend over backward to help us on issues where we are not in conflict or litigation. I could not get people at the same level of the Clinton administration to return my calls or emails, but these folks in the Bush administration will always talk to me and even go out drinking with me. That friendliness doesn’t stop me from suing them when I think they broke the law, but they never take it personally (I also never make such cases personal), and they will gladly split a couple bottles of wine with me any time.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

Birmingham, Ala. Montgomery, Ala.

What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?

I never had one. I have been an active environmentalist since the earliest I can remember, which is age 4.

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

Every time I lose a case, even if I expected it, it is the worst for me professionally. Unlike lawyers just suing for money or defending money, when I lose, something unique and special goes away forever. On a personal level in my professional life, the worst moment was when this very bad federal judge nodded to his court reporter, who then stopped taking a transcript of the hearing we were in, and proceeded to curse the hell out of me — that damn Clean Water Act, those commie, liberal clients of mine, etc. When I protested that he was breaking the law, he threatened to throw me in jail for contempt. I shut up, and not surprisingly, he ruled against us.

What’s been the best?

Having a crowd of 1,600 people in a high school gymnasium in rural Alabama give me a standing ovation when I was introduced to them as the lawyer for a rare fish in their community. I don’t know of any other lawyer who has had a reception like that. To those people, protecting that fish meant protecting the local stream that was the fish’s only habitat in the entire world. Most of them were baptized in that stream and it was where all of them recreated. Protecting that stream meant protecting their community. The stream and fish were threatened by a huge prison, which would have caused massive sediment and other pollution, choking the stream and killing the fish. We stopped the prison, and by “we,” I mean the community, which did a great job of organizing and fighting the problem on all fronts. The lawsuits I filed and me as the attorney helped, but I did not win the cause for them. They won it.

What’s on your desk right now?

Too much paper, a few DVDs and CD-ROMs with various videos, studies, reports, and other enviro documents on them, my computer and handheld computer, an XM radio, a photo of my three children (aged 10, 8, and 6), half a can of Dr. Pepper, and a .357 Magnum revolver. Wait … now an empty can of Dr. Pepper.

What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?

Clinton’s signing the “salvage” rider into law.

Who is your environmental hero?

Edward Abbey.

Who is your environmental nightmare?

He’s from Texas but lives in D.C. right now.

What’s your environmental vice?

Too many to count, including steaks, beer, whiskey, air conditioning, etc. To me, to be a person who is good (whether for the environment, human rights, whatever), the secret is not to minimize to the extreme each and every impact in each and every area of your life. Folks who do that turn themselves into boring prudes who still adversely impact the earth. Living a good life and being a good person means, overall, doing more good than harm and always striving to make things better.

How do you get around?

I have two vehicles, a Honda Pilot SUV (25 mpg) that I use for getting into the woods for reviewing timber sales and the like and for driving the kids around, and a Honda Insight hybrid (68 mpg) that I use for long road trips. We have no public transportation in the part of town where I live and barely any bus service in Montgomery at all, but I was the one who headed the civic committee that crafted a plan to bring passenger rail service back to Montgomery. Of course, that is sitting on a shelf downtown.

What are you reading these days?

What little time I have for reading is spent rereading those books that have always given me direction in my life and work: the Bible, The Art of War, the Tao Te Ching, Edward Abbey’s books, Walden.

What’s your favorite meal?

Grilled-cheese sandwiches and cheese grits.

Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?

Yes — from the Internet (Common Dreams, Wall Street Journal, European and African websites, and all our state’s local newspaper websites) and radio (NPR and XM stations).

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

Beer drinking.

What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?

I will never tell anyone my favorite place specifically, but more broadly, it is the Bankhead National Forest in northwest Alabama.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

I would tax the hell out of pollution and other environmentally destructive actions.

Who do you think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?

Kerry. Maybe John Kerry can defeat George Bush, maybe he cannot. But one thing is for sure: Bush can defeat Bush. And so far, W. is doing a great job of it.

Would you label yourself an environmentalist?

Yes, I would, if for no other reason than because it pisses off people who hate environmentalists when we are proud of the label, since they have been able to scare some people away from it. It means I am part of the environment and care about more than just money. I don’t care what baggage it brings (it does, but I don’t care). Too many environmentalists think that they have to be overly nice, which to them seems to mean wimpy. We need to be more like Teddy and speak softly but carry a big stick, not just speak softly and do nothing else. And, of course, the corollary to that rule is to use the stick occasionally. Then there are those environmentalists who speak harshly all the time, but they have no stick. They are equally ineffective. It is okay to be nice to our opponents; we don’t have to trash people personally because we dislike what they do, but that does not mean giving in to them. The best and nicest thing we can do to people who hurt the environment is defeat them; it will be good for them.

What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?

Why we are here and what we are. We spend so much time on the minutiae of specific issues or projects, we forget to ponder the overarching meaning of it all. If we became better grounded in why we are here, we would know better what to do while we are here. We work forever on stopping something bad, but we so rarely ask, “Why would someone want to destroy something beautiful or ruin people’s lives just to make some money?” “Why do we all prefer to do things the easy way instead of the right way?” “What is my life really supposed to mean? What is the polluter’s life supposed to mean?” How do we get the people we fight to also ask those same questions themselves? Deep, deep, deep stuff. After all, our life is our environment and our environment is our life. What does it all mean?

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?

The Eagles. Blue Man Group.

What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Unforgiven.

Mac or PC?

Both. PC for general work; Mac for dealing with photos and videos.

What are you happy about right now?

Damned little, which is good. Contented people aren’t happy; they are sheep. The only way to live is to be ticked off and do something about it. Happiness comes in small moments, which are important, but life is not about being happy. It’s about being and doing. Happy is part of that, but not the object of it.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

In 2004, it is definitely vote — get everyone you know to vote, get strangers to vote. Last time I voted, I was the only person there in line for five voting machines.

After 2004, run for office. Don’t bitch about how bad the politicians are if you are not willing to get out there and run yourself. I did; I ran for the Alabama legislature in 1994. I won the Democratic nomination and lost to the incumbent Republican who outspent me 100-to-1, but I got more media coverage and votes than any losing candidate for the legislature that year. The total cost of my campaign was $1,016, and I received 4,111 votes in a district where people were so right wing they thought Ronald Reagan was a flaming liberal. By the way, although I ran as a Democrat, I did so because it was easier and cheaper to qualify that way than to run as an independent, which Alabama election laws discourage with onerous ballot requirements. I do vote for Republicans, quite a lot sometimes, as I vote for or against the person; the party affiliation means much less than the personal qualifications. The best environmentalist in the Alabama legislature is a very conservative Republican. So don’t buy party lines; educate yourself on the people and the issues, and go vote.

Sting Ray

Ray Vaughan, executive director of WildLaw.

What are your feelings about vegetarianism and its contribution to reducing environmental damage and alleviating world hunger? And why do you carry a gun?     — Marylou Noble, Portland, Ore.

I admire folks who can truly reduce their impacts while still working on the big-picture problems; my comment was directed to people I know who make minimizing their impacts the whole focus of their lives, to the point that they do little to nothing else. These are the boring prudes who get nothing done. I agree that one can do what those folks do and still be effective. What I think is that we all need to be more tolerant and forgiving of each other’s shortcomings, as we all have them. If someone is doing the best they can, that is all we should ask of them.

Being a vegetarian is great, but I think eating meat is great, too. We are designed to do it, but we don’t have to. I have worked to prevent meat production from becoming the factory system so much of it is now and spend more when I can to get meat that is raised more humanely. But I am from Alabama, and folks here think being a vegetarian means you want more peas with your chicken-fried steak. I am part of my culture.

As for the guns, being from Alabama also explains that. Every Southern boy, just about, grows up with guns. I don’t hunt, but I like to target shoot. I have also had my life threatened several times and my office broken into five times; I have a great friend and client who was taken hostage and held at gunpoint by an anti-environmentalist in the woods here in Alabama. Bad guys who threaten environmentalists think we are all urban or suburban pansies who will cower when threatened; when you respond by waving your guns around and threatening them back, 99.99 percent of them back off like the cowardly bullies they are. Also, the guns are important when I debate Republicans, because in Alabama, the one with the most guns is the more conservative person in any discussion. So, when a Republican accuses me of being liberal, I ask him or her how many guns they have. They invariably have fewer than I do; I then win the argument by showing them to be more liberal. That’s just how we do it in Bama.

Do you find that you have enough time to have a life, and get some alone time, since you seem to be so passionate about your work (aside from the beer drinking)?     — Virginia Afentoulis, Oakland, Calif.

I make time to be with my wife and kids, to travel, and to do things I enjoy. I try very hard to be home by 5:00 or 5:30 every evening. Otherwise, I would go nuts. This often means turning down cases, and we do turn down two to five cases a week. There is so much need out there for environmental protection, I could work 100 hours a week and still turn away most of the work. So I prioritize and make the best of it I can. If I burn out, I won’t get anything done. But as WildLaw has grown, I have been able to surround myself with an excellent staff that takes up more of the slack and enables us to do more of the work. I am learning to delegate more and have more family (and beer-drinking) time. I estimate that I work about 50 hours a week on average, but I have a home office also and do some of it there, especially in the mornings and on weekends.

Which Edward Abbey book is your favorite? Just finished Desert Solitaire. Pretty rockin’.     — Amelia Timbers, Santa Cruz, Calif.

That is probably his greatest work, but my personal favorite, the one I keep coming back to for gems of inspiration, is Abbey’s Road.

Is there anybody out there even coming close to filling Ed Abbey’s shoes (boots?)? Any writer or other kind of troublemaker?     — Kirk Knighton, Seattle, Wash.

I don’t know of any. There are a lot of good folks and good writers fighting the good fight, but there is no one of Ed’s stature these days. Maybe someday. I like to think of myself as a bit of a writer; you can see how bad my writing is by buying my novel, The First Amendment. But what we need more than another Edward Abbey is 100,000 more good activists like we have now.

Could you share your basic big-picture outlook? Does religion inform your thinking? Where do you believe humanity fits in on the earth? What are we here for?     — Baron Jenneson, Wilmington, Del.

I am no fan of organized religion in any form, but I am a very religious person. Not that I think organized religion is bad; it can be misused, but many people need it and find comfort there, and that is fine. But for myself, I do not feel the need for a preacher with his own agenda to act as intermediary between me and God. Everything and everyone is here for a reason, even if we can never know it. I believe we are here because someone needs us and loves us and is waiting to see what we will do.

(1) What is the best way to get started getting an environmental legal organization up and off the ground? What is the hardest part about doing it? (2) Do you collaborate with any other organizations in your field, or do you just prefer to work with your various offices? (3) What sort of criteria do you have to set up new offices in new areas? Are you looking to expand?     — Marc Chapman, Minneapolis, Minn.

1) I started WildLaw without any clue as to how you should do this, and I highly recommend that method. If I knew what it would have taken to do all this, I am not sure I would have done it. The hardest part is just to resolve to do it and start. Once you’re committed to the creation of something new, like becoming a parent, you just have to keep doing it.

2) We cooperate and work with hundreds of other environmental, community, and public-health organizations all the time, every day. Environmental protection, like everything else, is a team sport. The quarterback cannot win a game all by himself. Not that I think of us as the quarterback; we’re more like a linebacker.

3) We went through a period of pretty rapid expansion, with some successes (the offices we have now) and some less successful efforts (we once had offices in Minnesota and Louisiana, both of which did good work, but we could not sustain them). We now concentrate on maximizing and building up our capabilities in the current offices, which also gives us the capacity to go outside our main service area of the South on occasion for a special case. For example, we are handling a case before the U.S. Supreme Court over the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, but we did not open an office there to do it. We are not averse to expanding and adding new offices, but I will not open another new office without (a) funding assured for two years (it is not fair to ask someone to take a job at much less pay than they could get elsewhere without some assurance that work will still be there for at least a couple of years), (b) strong support from the local environmental organizations and community (such as groups needing an attorney and willing to work to support our supporting them), and (c) clear need for the help we can provide.

From whence do you derive income?     — Pasquale Vairo, New York, N.Y.

In 2003, we had a total income of $542,122, the first time we have ever gone over the half-a-million dollar mark. Of that, $392,246 was donations from individuals; $144,160 was from grants from smaller to middle-sized foundations. The rest was from interest ($1,607), expense reimbursements ($3,519), court-ordered costs ($128), and tax refunds.

Our expenditures in 2003 totaled $468,335, just under our budget of $469,679. Of that, $395,970 (84.6 percent) was for program work; $17,486 (3.7 percent) was for administrative expenses, and $54,879 (11.7 percent) was for fundraising and development work.

Is filing lawsuits the only way to change people?     — Peter Bonenberger, Pipe Creek, Texas

It is not the only way, but sometimes it is the most effective. Also, litigation is not an end in itself, but a tool, a means to change. A good example is how, in 1992, we could not get the national forests in Alabama to obey the law and properly manage our public forests here, no matter what we did nicely. So, we sued them, sued them again, and again and again, until by 1999, we shut them down completely. The bad staff people then got transferred or “retired early,” and new, good folks replaced them. Instead of saying, “We won, you’re done,” we then extended a hand to the good folks in the agency and said, “If you will change and do scientifically valid restoration work and leave the natural forest areas alone, we will help you.” They agreed, and the national forests in Alabama now have the nation’s best and foremost forest-restoration programs. Teddy said to talk softly but carry a big stick. If no one is listening, use the stick some — then they will listen.

How have you found that the South’s history of racism relates to your work?     — Rebecca Littlejohn, Anniston, Ala.

There is no doubt that environmental burdens fall heaviest on the poor and minority communities. Showing that this was intentional is difficult; perhaps it was inadvertent, but the disparate racial impacts are very real nonetheless. And even if racial motivations were not behind the siting of pollution, the racial divides that still exist can be useful to polluters, and they do take advantage of that. There is no doubt in my mind, though, that polluting industries and government regulators do target poor areas for new pollution; I don’t think the motivation is usually racial (as there are plenty of poor white areas that are getting hammered, too) but a desire to minimize resistance to what they plan to do. Disorganized poor folks don’t put up much of a fight. How many companies try to site a landfill in the rich suburbs? I have seen it happen on rare occasions, and damn if those rich folks don’t get their buddy the state attorney general or the local district attorney (whose campaigns they heavily funded) out there to chase off the polluter before they start. The solution for those who aren’t rich and who can’t buy politicians is to get very organized and work to raise their community up, because who else will do it for them? Divides must be bridged and even healed, and the local community must do it, as no one else will. We have just started a full-service environmental communities program in WildLaw, because our being the lawyer called in at the last minute on these types of issues just was not enough. We hope that our more comprehensive community services will do more to give people the tools they need to get organized, get beyond the old divisions of the past, make their voices heard, and get results.

Do you have any advice to those who suffer from MCS (multiple chemical sensitivities), to help them encourage enforcement of the laws meant to protect them?     — Bobby McClintock, Honolulu, Hawaii

I will take a legal angle on this and suggest you build a means to use those laws. And you do not necessarily have to have a lawyer to do it; I know a number of activists who got educated on the law in one particular area (endangered species, national forests, etc.) until they knew as much about the law in that area as any attorney did. They have been able to file appeals, petitions, requests for rule-making, and even lawsuits, all on their own. Of course, if you can find a lawyer, preferably a young one who can learn your area of the law quickly and who doesn’t know that they are supposed to be rich, you can start your own legal clinic or group for this issue. If you have enough experts to back up the proof of your damages, hire some trial lawyer willing to break ground in this area and start suing some of the worst manufacturers for money.

I was forced off my organic farm in Kansas because my adjacent neighbors dumped municipal sludge on their property, uphill from my garden. This act was sanctioned by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and ultimately, by the EPA. What, if any is my recourse?     — Audrey Klopper, McLouth, Kan.

Hire a good trial lawyer and sue for damages. Just because an act of pollution is officially sanctioned by the government (that is what “permits” are, permission to pollute), that does not mean the polluter has the right to damage you and your property. Our pollution permit laws do not usually trump trespass and nuisance tort law.

In your opinion, why is it that Bush and his administration are so dedicated to anti-environmental policy? How does their extreme view benefit them more than it hurts them?     — Dave Richards, San Diego, Calif.

Folks in the Bush administration know there is a better way to get what they claim they want (more balance in regulations, protect communities from wildfire, etc.) than the ways they are doing things. But the administration is filled with good soldiers who do what they are told. Who gives the orders? Look at the contributors to the Bush campaigns. I think many of the folks in the administration would personally rather do things in a less damaging manner, or even do things right, but this administration is the most organized and regimented in a long time. They have to do exactly what they are told or they are out. If we can stop them, as with a successful lawsuit that keeps them from following orders, then they may be free to go to “Plan B,” which the contributors do not have. So, they might then be freed up to do things a better way. That is one reason we sue the Bush administration so much, so that they can find a better way to do things. As for Bush himself, I don’t know if it was the cocaine or whether he is just simply not right in the head, but he has some serious mental and emotional problems and clearly needs help.

If you could change one thing about Bush’s policies, what would it be? If Kerry gets elected, what environmental issue should be the first he addresses?     — Thalia Schlossberg, Bloomington, Ind.

Somebody has to change Bush’s heart; that man is not right in the head. As much as he talks and pretends about God and religion, I wish he would really get some faith. As long as he thinks the way he does, nothing can change how he does things. Once Kerry is in, he has to address everything first; the wholesale rollbacks of the Bush administration cannot be addressed individually but with a coordinated plan that hits all the agencies and policies. He has to make an unequivocal executive-branch-wide commitment to putting law, people, and democratic participation back into all environmental policy.

What are your thoughts on nuclear power and power plants?     — Todd Newkirk, Lebo, Kan.

I have actually stood in the core of a nuclear power plant reactor (TVA Watts Bar Unit 1), as they were finishing it and before the fuel went in (obviously). What a massive investment in something from which we cannot dispose of the waste safely. Regardless of the environmental pros and cons, I do not think nuclear power plants can be economically justified; without the massive subsidies, no one would ever build one. Plus they take far too long to build (Watts Bar #1 took 23 years to get on line; #2 never did), and even if they never have a major accident, what do we do with them and the spent fuel once they are done and cannot be used? Sticking this stuff in a hole in Nevada for 300,000 years sounds like hubris to me.

If we are going to subsidize things, and we are, we need to be smarter about it. Instead of giving vast subsidies to coal, oil, and nuclear, why not give the same size subsidies to conservation, wind, and solar, and let coal, oil, and nuclear fight over the crumbs? We’d have some damn fine technology all over the place with that amount of money. LED light bulbs as bright as incandescents but using only 1 percent of the power. Solar roofing panels on millions of homes. We subsidize the hell out of cars, roads, airplanes, barge traffic, etc., but do little for trains. If we gave trains the subsidies we give highways and airlines, we’d have 300 mph maglev trains throughout the country, all powered by solar panels along the tracks — New York City to Los Angeles in under 10 hours.

For me, we should be putting our money into energy production based on these two rules: (1) does the production of energy from this source cause more damage than the power is worth (both environmentally and economically), and (2) if something goes wrong with the technology, do really bad things happen? If the answer to either is “yes,” no subsidy. When a solar panel goes out, nothing, literally, happens. When a nuke goes bad, well, we all know the problems there. Centralizing power production in expensive infrastructure guarantees bad things happening when things go wrong, whether it is Three Mile Island, regional blackouts, acid precipitation, or the hammerlock power companies have on our politicians. Decentralizing power production will make the production safer and more reliable, and it will be good for our democracy.

What amount of utility power do you use in defending the earth, both at home and work? Does your state offer incentives to the public to use solar power in their everyday lives?     — Solar Richard Thompson, Tacoma, Wash.

Alabama does not encourage any renewable energy; the more coal we use, the more our state officials like it. We have energy-efficient lighting throughout the house and the office, low-flow faucets and toilets, and very good insulation. Our home electricity bill averages about $90 per month, and our office bill (for a staff of nine right now) is $75 per month. We have cases and programs on what air pollution from coal-fired plants does to human health and the environment (mainly focusing on acid precipitation that kills forests in the southern Appalachians). We try to show people that the current electricity system means our forests die and our children (like my youngest son) cannot play in their own yards during the summer without having asthma attacks and lung damage. Someday, we will have a critical mass of demand for something better and more sustainable.

We are a very small group of Missouri women fighting ConocoPhillips over a pipeline. Our question: What is the best way to get buyouts for anyone who wants to leave their home?     — D. Ellebrac, West Alton, Mo.

I have fought some pipelines that were going where they should not, but I have never done any work on ones already there and causing problems. If your property is contaminated and there are trespass and nuisance damages, I strongly recommend that you and all the folks there hire top-notch trial lawyers who have environmental tort experience to represent you and get you adequately compensated. Sorry, but I don’t know any up your way.

I see you are a spelunker. What caves and how many have you explored in Alabama?     — Donna Cobb, Birmingham, Ala.

Well, I have been too busy to do much caving in the last two decades or so. But I went to Sewanee in Tennessee for college, and I was out in the caves weekly then. Mostly caves around there; I even discovered one in Thumping Dick Hollow. Yes, that is the name of the place.

What are the chances of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management actually doing what it was designed to do for environmental law enforcement? And are you familiar with the ADEM Reform Coalition?     — Judy Holt, Henagar, Ala.

I am very familiar with the ARC, and while the folks in the ARC are well-intentioned, I have long since given up on reforming ADEM. Most of the ARC’s ideas were first put forth in 1992 and nothing happened. ADEM has only gotten worse since then, and I see no reason to think ADEM will ever make serious improvements to how it operates. I now think that the only real solution is to abolish ADEM and start over with something entirely new, like an elected commissioner of the environment, making the agency directly accountable to the people. Alabama has an elected commissioner of agriculture; we should have one for our environment and natural resources. While politics are heavily influenced by money and power, it is not totally captive. People can still vote and throw out a bad politician. The current system at ADEM makes its director accountable to no one, and, thus, the polluters have a total lock on the agency. As Edward Abbey said, “The best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

Is there anything that we can do about the conflicts of interest at the Alabama Farmer Federation and its continued use of farmers’ good names and reputations in the pretense of protecting farmers?     — Willard Jones, Henagar, Ala.

There is no doubt that the last thing ALFA does is help real farmers. For those of you elsewhere in the nation, ALFA is our version of the Farm Bureau, but much worse. As long as ALFA controls ADEM and the Alabama Legislature, there is little we will get there. All we can do is keep fighting against things getting worse. We need to change the entire system, which means public demand for change. And in Alabama, as you know, that is about as hard as flying to the moon in a chicken suit. Still, we have to try to change things by getting people mad. And while the first few lawsuits against CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations] were not big successes, folks need to keep hiring trial lawyers to sue the crap out of CAFOs that damage their neighbors. That gets change and attention.

Good article, Ray. But you didn’t say what brand of whiskey!     — Blake Otwell, Jacksonville, Ala.

My favorite is Knob Creek.