Still Just a Bill

Churches persevere to protect mountains

When you learned how bills become laws, whether from Schoolhouse Rock or in a schoolhouse, the first step was probably a citizen coming up with a great law. The citizen shares the idea with their friendly representative, who immediately recognizes its brilliance and champions the bill. After some singing and dancing, a law is born.

These days, most bills are written by lobbyists, and they persuade legislators of their brilliance by explaining how many fancy dinners, golf trips, and campaign donations their clients will be able to afford if the bill becomes law. On occasion, however, honest grassroots legislation comes along and proves that citizens still have power. The Tennessee Scenic Vistas Act is such a bill.

The brainchild of a few church members looking for a way to memorialize a friend lost to cancer, the bill would end mountaintop-removal coal mining in Tennessee. Rather than coming from activists and environmental organizations who have been fighting surface mining for decades, this bill emerged from the Creation Care movement.

Over the past decade, many Christians revisited the notion of stewardship and rethought positions on environmental issues. Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light formed in Knoxville several years ago and now has chapters in Chattanooga and Nashville. They offer educational programs and practical guidance for churches wishing to conserve energy and reduce waste. On Friday, Dr. Matthew Sleeth, author of Serve God, Save the Planet will speak to local pastors and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam about the Creation Care movement.

Kathy Lindquist was a member of Knoxville's Church of the Savior and the Creation Care movement. Just before her death in 2006, she told her congregation destruction of mountains was her top concern. Pat Hudson, Dawn Coppock and other church members formed the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship to carry on her stewardship legacy.

They studied mountaintop-removal coal mining and crafted a fair, comprehensive bill that would end all surface mining above 2,000 feet, clarify water protections for mines at lower elevations, and allow remedial mining at old strip mines to restore natural contours. This is the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Act.

Determined to work across ideological and party boundaries, LEAF found a Democrat, Rep. Mike McDonald, to introduce the bill in the State House and a Republican, Sen. Raymond Finney, to present it to the State Senate. Unfortunately, Senator Finney, a conservative Christian from Blount County, was defeated in the August primary, costing an enthusiastic supporter. Finney and McDonald were the first recipients of the Genesis Award, created to "honor someone who has taken a courageous stand in caring for the Earth," according to Hudson.

Though the Scenic Vistas Act was defeated in a House committee last year, it will be introduced again next year. For conservation-minded voters, a candidate's stance on this bill should be a major concern. The choice is most stark in the 17th House District. Incumbent Frank Niceley voted against the bill last year, and his opponent, David Seal, supports it.

Local Senate candidates who supported the bill last year include Mike Williams, an independent from Maynardville who is in a tightly contested race, and Steve Southerland, a Republican from Morristown whose seat is not up for election this year. Democrat Tommy Kilby of Wartburg opposed the bill last year; his seat is not on the ballot this year.

In these divisive times, the Scenic Vistas Act provides a refreshing example of citizens working together for a noble cause. If you want to move beyond partisanship, ask your state-level candidates where they stand on protecting Tennessee's mountains.