Laura Cantral departs the Coastal Conservation League on Dec. 31 as just the second executive director in the group’s three-decade history. Taking over the group in late 2017 from founder Dana Beach, Cantral said its momentum and sense of purpose are stronger than ever.
As family reasons take her and her husband to Atlanta, the City Paper sat down with her at the League’s Spring Street office one rainy December morning to talk (naturally) flooding, climate change, development and more. A national search is underway for her successor.
City Paper: What changes can you trace from your time here since you came on?
Laura Cantral: When I came four years ago and took over as the second executive director of an organization that, at that time, was 28 years old, I was building on a really strong legacy of conservation work. That work has continued and, I believe, has been as strong and as robust as it was when I got here. I think a few things that are different are maybe in how we think about the work. Flooding, climate change, sea level rise; the pressures of a changing climate, coupled with the pressure of intense development, that’s the double whammy of this city, this region, this state — they call it the Lowcountry for a reason.
We’re experiencing the impacts every single day. And we have been thinking deeply about the relevance of all of the work that we do, and I would challenge you to pick any project that we work on, and argue that it’s not connected to climate change.
CP: How does CCL think about dealing with long-term urgent issues like climate change in tandem with short-term urgent issues like offshore drilling?
LC: It’s sort of the difference between chronic and acute, in terms of projects and cadence. We have to be nimble.
CP: What areas of the state face the biggest threats at this point?
LC: Everything is under threat. The nature of the threats are different from place to place. The threats in the Myrtle Beach area and Hilton Head are different. Charleston — being the metropolis that it is and developing so quickly — has its own set of issues. And then of everything in between: You’ve got places in between those that suffer from many of the same threats, but have less capacity and political influence. They’re just smaller communities, in many cases, poorer, underserved communities — those are under threat. The sea islands are under threat. The sense of urgency has just never been greater.
It’s this combination of growing threats from increasing storms — in terms of frequency and intensity — more tidal flooding, rising sea levels, the threat of storm surge, living with water. We’re not anti development, we know that places need to develop, people need to have places to live and work and we need to grow our economy. We support that. But it needs to be done in a way that is taking into account these threats, not in this moment, exclusively, but over the longer term.
CP: How can the Conservation League help people relate what those threats are to the life they live?
LC: You have to make it relevant for people. People have limited time and attention to devote to anything. There are existential threats here. And we have to strike a balance between, “There are solutions” [and] an overwhelming, “Oh, my gosh. All is lost. Let’s throw up our hands and not even care.” Because there are things that we can do. And it’s our job to distill those and articulate those in a way that are compelling and understandable.
CP: Any advice for your successor?
LC: Take your vitamins. Be ready to strap in because it’s a big job, and it’s an important job. And it takes a lot of energy.
Responses have been edited for content and clarity.