For decades, Black environmentalists and residents of Eagle Harbor, Maryland, have been fighting to protect the town from land, air and water pollution.
The waterfront community formed in the late 1920s as a haven for Black Americans to escape a bustling Washington, D.C., and summer heat. At a time of segregated beaches, Eagle Harbor on the Patuxent River became a popular Black oasis for swimming, boating, fishing and other forms of recreation.
Over the years, however, shoreline erosion, water contamination and other environmental conditions—some allegedly stemming from a nearby power-generating plant—have threatened the town’s livelihood as well as the townspeople’s quality of outdoor life.
In Our Land, a short documentary produced by REI Co-op Studios, filmmaker Emmanuel Afolabi introduces the people who are fighting to keep the story and community of Eagle Harbor alive. Black environmentalists and townspeople, including the Patuxent Riverkeeper alliance, a local advocacy and restoration organization, have been monitoring pollution and seeking regulatory reforms to clean up the water and land so people can drink from their taps, swim and fish in the river and much more.
This is a familiar battle for Black communities and other communities of color in the United States. Black communities have historically experienced the highest levels of nature deprivation in 26 states, and Latino and Hispanic communities in 8 states, according to a report by the nonpartisan policy institute the Center for American Progress. Energy generation and extraction are some of the leading causes of that lack, the Center says. Clearing the land to build facilities and infrastructure can eliminate significant green space, and the increased risk of spills, improper waste disposal and water and air pollution threaten local residents’ ability to safely enjoy the outdoors.
Support the TREES Act, Protect Our Land
At REI Co-op, we believe everyone has the right to enjoy the power of the outdoors and time in nature. Eliminating the disparities to enjoying nature is a large part of that vision. That’s why we invite you to join the REI Cooperative Action Network in supporting the bipartisan TREES Act, introduced to Congress last year. This bill would create a cost-share grant program to plant at least 300,000 trees annually and attempt to address environmental, economic and social inequalities in communities across the U.S. Importantly, this bill is dedicated to lowering residential energy costs and, ultimately, reducing our reliance on extractive energy sources, like those abutting Eagle Harbor.
Neighborhoods with no or low tree canopies can have lower home values, increased pollution and less available greenspace for recreation. Planting trees does more than make a neighborhood beautiful: Tree canopies can provide shade to help lower energy costs and cool street temperatures, act as a protective windbreak and improve air quality.
The TREES Act would create a cost-share grant program at the Department of Energy to plant a minimum of 300,000 trees annually through 2026, prioritizing low-wealth communities, neighborhoods with large populations of senior citizens and/or children, areas with low tree canopy and heat islands in urban areas.
Eagle Harbor—and communities like it—have a deep connection to both the land and each other. The residents have fought long and hard to have the support, protection and access to safe outdoor areas that have contributed to their town’s rich history. Initiatives like the TREES Act can provide tangible improvements to outdoor access, greater equity and the benefits that nature can offer.
“The relationship Black people have to the American land is sacred,” Afolabi says. “Accessing nature, experiencing and being present within the natural environment is more than a right. It’s a fundamental inheritance for Black people.”