Citadel professor, Ivy League lawyer to head green group


Photo, courtesy The Citadel

South Carolina’s highest profile environmental group has chosen an Ivy League-educated attorney to lead the organization at a time when supporters say the group needs to regain momentum lost after the departure of its founder five years ago.

Faith Rivers James, an assistant provost at The Citadel and a Harvard law graduate, was named the SC Coastal Conservation League’s third executive director Thursday.

James, a 57-year-old Daniel Island resident who grew up in Mt. Pleasant, becomes the first African American director of the league, an organization that focuses on environmental protection in the Lowcountry but also has a presence as far inland as Columbia and the Pee Dee region.

James, in an interview with The State, said she’ll rely on her knowledge of South Carolina and its coast to guide her at the Conservation League.

“I don’t have to learn the Lowcountry community, I’m a part of the Lowcountry,” she said. “I have to make new connections and reestablish old connections. But I certainly have a passion for the people in this place and for the landscapes we are blessed to enjoy. I plan to be a strong advocate to work with others to get things done.”

The Conservation League told key supporters about James’ appointment in an email Wednesday night. She starts Aug. 15.

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Faith Rivers James, the Coastal Conservation League’s director. Photo, courtesy The Citadel

James succeeds Laura Cantral, who served as director from late 2017 through December 2021. Cantral left under amicable circumstances in early January for family reasons. Cantral had replaced former Columbia resident Dana Beach, who started the organization more than three decades ago before retiring in 2017.

Amy Armstrong, who heads the non-profit SC Environmental Law Project, said she’s delighted that James has been chosen.

“I had an opportunity to work with and interact with Faith for many, many years, back when she was with the SC Bar Foundation,” Armstrong said, referring to James’ former job as that organization’s director. “She is just an incredible person. She’s going to be a force for change with the league.”

James, who has served on the Center for Heirs Property board of directors, joins SC Nature Conservancy Director Dale Threatt-Taylor as one of the few African Americans in charge of a major conservation organization in South Carolina.

On the significance of being the league’s first Black director, James said “what we have in common is greater than what distinguishes us from each other.” She said she wants the league “to be a strong voice for those who can’t speak for themselves, particularly the components of our environment that have no voice at all.”

James has an extensive legal resume, and she recently has headed The Citadel’s leadership studies department.

From 1998-2004, she served as director of the SC Bar Foundation, an organization that provides money for civil legal aid and law projects. She also has served as an associate dean at the Elon (NC) University School of Law and has taught law at Wake Forest University, the Vermont Law School and the University of South Carolina.

Educated in Charleston at the Porter-Gaud school, she graduated from law school at Harvard in 1990 and received her undergraduate degree from Dartmouth in 1986.

Founded in 1989, the Coastal Conservation League has more than three dozen staff members and a multi-million dollar endowment that has allowed it to weather economic downturns through the years.

The league, headquartered in Charleston, employs specialists on energy, agriculture, coastal development, road-planning, water quality and other environmental issues. It has branch offices in Beaufort and Georgetown counties, as well as one in Columbia that monitors and lobbies at the Legislature.

But despite key successes under Cantral, including the fight against offshore oil drilling and protection of Captain Sam’s spit near Charleston, some say the league did not maintain the outspoken reputation that it developed under founder Beach.

Cantral’s four-year run as director was hampered by the COVID 19 crisis, which diminished the league’s ability to do what it has done best: engage with the public at meetings and in-person sessions, those familiar with the league say.

Cantral was viewed as a level-headed executive, a good organizer and quality staff developer, but she had a lower profile style than Beach and some say was less apt to engage in legal fights over environmental issues.

Lowcountry conservationist Charles Lane, who was on the search committee that chose James, said the league lost some momentum in recent years, but that “was to be expected. COVID didn’t help. That’s why we have to get it right and back on all cylinders.”

Former staff member Nancy Vinson said Beach “was a hard act to follow.”

The league’s stature is important in South Carolina because, through the years, it has been viewed as a leader by other environmental groups, influencing how those organizations respond to issues.

The league, for instance, led the successful fight in the 1990s to stop mega hog farms from locating in South Carolina, offering reinforcement to the Sierra Club’s understaffed lobby effort. More than a decade ago, it also was a key player in the defeat of a coal-fired power plant near Florence and in efforts to scale back a massive port expansion in Charleston.

Upstate Forever, a large environmental protection organization in South Carolina’s foothills, was formed after its founder, Brad Wyche, discussed the idea with Beach.

Oceana environmental group official Samantha Siegel, who organized efforts to save the majestic Angel Oak tree on Johns Island, said the Conservation League taught her about environmental advocacy during their joint fight to protect the ancient live oak.

Beach and his staff “choose to take the time to mentor me and other local citizens on how advocacy works, how to build a grassroots movement,” Siegel said. “That is something special about the Coastal Conservation League.”

Beach, in a statement from the league, said he’s glad James is coming on board.

“There has never been a more important time to redouble our conservation efforts in the face of unprecedented development pressure,” Beach said. “Faith’s background in land use and law, along with her exemplary communication skills, are perfectly aligned with the goals and needs of the organization today.”

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Dana Beach founded the SC Coastal Conservation League in 1989 File photo/The State

This story has been updated.

This story was originally published July 7, 2022 5:00 AM.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment beat for The State since 1995. He writes about an array of issues, including wildlife, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. He has won numerous awards, including Journalist of the Year by the SC Press Association in 2017. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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