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Opinion | A Ray of Hope in a Slimy Southern Cave

The need may be no more desperate than in Jefferson County, which in 2011 made headlines with a $4 billion municipal bankruptcy. In 2020, analysts saw its continued economic collapse as a dire warning of what could happen elsewhere in a pandemic-related recession.

Yet rural residents in the South are coming together on the side of preservation. At a meeting of the Coffee County Commission on Nov. 10, opponents spoke against zoning changes for three hours, prompting commission members to withdraw the quarry proposal — temporarily, they said, to make revisions. A new plan that would essentially open even more county land to quarries is scheduled for a vote on March 9.

Nationally, there are always bigger environmental concerns — climate change, clean water, clean air, sustainable energy, public lands opened to mining by the Trump administration, possible positive actions by the Biden administration. The big stories can leave smaller threats unnoticed beyond county lines, like salamanders overlooked in a cave.

In 2017, I interviewed Mr. Prine for a literary website, asking whether he had traveled lately to Kentucky’s Green River, where the town of Paradise once lay. “The few times I’ve had access to a boat in the latter years and been able to go down the river,” he said, “it surprisingly looks a lot like it did when I was a kid.”

He paused to explain. “When you’re on the river, everything’s grown up, the grass and the bushes, and you can’t see all the damage that’s been done. Except when you go right by where the town sat. You know, of course, the coal chutes and everything are on the river where they loaded the barges up.”

Mr. Prine taught me to appreciate nature as fleeting. So did exploring caves. Whenever I pause underground to consider my way forward, I spot nature inches away. If the fight for Butler Mountain is lost, chances are that the surrounding land will still look much the same to casual travelers. But it will look forever changed to residents, cavers and slimy salamanders.

Vulcan Materials will have hauled it away.

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