Derb Carter ’75, a behind-the-scenes hero of the environmental movement, has spent decades fighting to protect the natural world.
by Melba Newsome
Kemp Burdette is one of North Carolina’s best-known naturalists and environmentalists. He also prides himself on being a pretty good birder. However, when he glimpsed what looked like the nest of a swallow-tailed kite, a rare black-and-white raptor, while rowing the Black River in Southeastern North Carolina, he needed confirmation. He knew exactly whom to call: renowned environmental attorney Derb Carter Jr. ’75, who also happens to be an expert birder.
“I saw a swallow-tailed nest today,” Burdette told Carter.
“Are you sure?” Carter asked.
“Yeah. It’s right up the river from my house.”
“I’ll be there tomorrow,” Carter said.
Carter made the two-hour drive from Chapel Hill to Pender County the next day, binoculars and fancy camera in hand. Carter and Burdette, who’s in charge of protecting rivers by monitoring the waterways for the nonprofit Cape Fear River Watch, went out on the Black River and quickly located the nest and the elusive bird.
“Derb was able to photograph and document the first swallow-tailed kite bird ever in the state,” Burdette said. “He can recognize a bird from the sound. Just casually looking through his binoculars, he identified like three more birds never identified here before. He’s like, ‘There’s a black-billed cuckoo.’ ”
Carter’s passion for birding dates back to his elementary school days in Fayetteville. “When I came home from school, the first thing I wanted to do was wander down by the creek in the nearby forest and see what I could see,” he said.
He saw mostly birds. When he was 8 years old, he started keeping a list of the species he’d seen. It now stands at just under 5,000. He set the Carolina Bird Club’s state record for the number of birds seen and documented in one year — 351.
It all began when Carter read Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 work about how the indiscriminate use of pesticides led to a spring without birdsong. The book channeled his passion into a lifelong devotion to protect the natural world. Today, Carter is senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the regional public law firm founded in 1986 to protect the environment and the planet. In the 37 years since, Carter has been at the forefront of almost every major air, water, pollution and wetlands fight in the Southeast, shaping laws and policy — and the notion of what’s environmentally possible to achieve in the courtroom.
On a Saturday morning in October 2021, I waited on Water Street in Wilmington with dozens of reporters and environmental activists to board the Cape Fear Henrietta riverboat cruise for the Cut Carbon, Not Forests tour, part of an international campaign to bring attention to the ecological impact of the rapidly expanding wood pellet, or biomass, industry on communities, species and forests.
Wood pellets are made of compressed sawdust from trees harvested throughout the Southeast and shipped to the United Kingdom to generate energy for the European Union, as part of its promise to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. Opponents argue that logging trees on the coastal plains and shipping them across the Atlantic is not carbon neutral and is contributing to deforestation in the Southeast.
Carter is a household name among industry and environmental activists and was a bit of a celebrity to most everyone on board the Henrietta. He stood quietly by the boat railing, seemingly lost in the vista until he was introduced to the crowd. He spoke to the group extemporaneously, displaying a command of science, economics and national and local policy. He recounted the major points of the fight that began about 10 years ago when United Kingdom-based Enviva Biomass, the world’s largest wood-pellet producer, built its first U.S. factory in the majority Black town of Ahoskie in Hertford County. Since then, the company has opened four facilities in North Carolina and a total of 10 in the Southeast.
“Birders are against biomass because the industry does more damage than good for wildlife and the environment,” Carter later said with a laugh.
Given the wood pellet industry’s rapid growth, Carter knows the window to stop it, or roll it back, has closed. Now, the SELC is trying to limit its impact on the environment and surrounding communities, a playbook Carter has used many times before.
He sued industry giants including Duke Energy Corp. and Smithfield Foods Inc. for polluting the air and water of nearby communities and challenged state and federal regulatory agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality — to protect wetlands, forests, rivers and endangered species. Leading and winning a fair number of these David-versus-Goliath battles has earned him a number of awards, including the 2004 North Carolina Conservationist of the Year from the N.C. Wildlife Federation and the 2006 N.C. Coastal Federation Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Without the Southern Environmental Law Center, many of the familiar conservation groups you know about would not be able to accomplish what we do,” said Andy Wood, director of the Coastal Plain Conservation Group, a local biodiversity protection organization he started in 2011. “We hear from educators and scientists in the press, but the final arbiter for the environment is the attorney pleading its case in court. Derb is one of those behind-the-scenes environmental heroes.”
Born and raised in Fayetteville, Carter came of age during the glory days of environmentalism. He was a high school senior on the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and witnessed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency that same year. Congress also passed in 1970 the landmark National Environmental Policy Act, often called the Magna Carta of environmental law, which required federal agencies to measure the environmental impacts of their proposed actions. That year also saw passage of the Clean Air Act, and, just two years later, the Clean Water Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act were signed into law. The Endangered Species Act and the Natural Forest Management Act soon followed. They were all created to protect the nation’s natural resources, and Carter was anxious to ensure they did.
As an undergraduate in an emerging field, Carter understood passing these laws was only the first step. They had to be enforced, and violators had to be held accountable. When he earned his undergraduate biology degree, UNC didn’t offer an environmental law program, so Carter made the difficult decision to leave his beloved home state for the University of Oregon School of Law.
Oregon’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center, one of the first public-interest environmental law curricula in the United States, attracted students from across the country who were passionate about protecting the environment. One of them was Don Hornstein, now the Aubrey L. Brooks Professor of law at the UNC School of Law and Carter’s close friend for more than 40 years.
“At that point, I had never been to North Carolina, and Derb was the first person I’d ever met from there in my life,” Hornstein said with a laugh. “He was a year ahead of me in school and really nice. Not everybody in law school is nice, but Derb was a prince. We were both taking what might have been the only advanced Clean Air Act class in the world and probably the hardest class I took in law school. I was sweating the whole time, and Derb seemed like a fish in water. If there ever was somebody born to environmental law, it was Derb.”
Carter’s first post-law school job was as an honors program attorney in the Office of the Solicitor in the U.S. Department of the Interior, where he believed he could help protect the nation’s natural resources. The opportunity was short-lived. It was the last year of the Carter administration, and the bipartisan coalition in Congress that created the first environmental protections was fracturing. Anti-regulatory groups were aligning with businesses to push back against what they viewed as regulatory overreach.
The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of environmental policy. During his campaign, Reagan promised to modify or eliminate what he viewed as stifling regulations. He appointed as his secretary of the interior James Watt, a brash, often impolitic, anti-environmentalist who pronounced almost immediately that his goal was to “undo 50 years of bad government.”
“One of the first things Watt wanted to do was to give away many of the federal lands in the West to private interests,” Carter said. “That wasn’t an agenda I was interested in helping to achieve, but I didn’t have to make a decision because my class of honors attorneys were all fired.”
“There’s no individual in North Carolina who has done more to protect places and people, or won more cases than Derb.”
— SELC founder Rick Middleton
Carter went to work for the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C. In 1982, he and two wildlife scientists opened the NWF’s Carolina Wetlands office in Raleigh. When NWF moved its regional office to Atlanta, Carter stayed in Raleigh and became the first North Carolina attorney in the Southern Environmental Law Center that Alabama native Rick Middleton had started in Charlottesville three years earlier.
The South can be a tough place for environmental advocacy and was especially difficult 40 years ago. Many view the movement with skepticism, and the most vocal argue that pollution is the price we pay for an industrialized world and a robust economy.
Carter has spent decades trying to convince his fellow Southerners that it is not an either-or situation. He believes if the argument is broken down to a personal level, all sides can find common ground. “The vast majority of people, including North Carolinians, care about clean air, clean water, protecting lands for recreation and hunting and fishing and other uses,” Carter said. “I remain hopeful we can all get together on that.”
When Carter opened SELC’s Chapel Hill office in 1989, there were fewer than six lawyers. Today, SELC is the largest environmental organization in the Southeast with more than 100 lawyers in nine offices in six states — Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The Chapel Hill office, the largest in the network, has been at the center of some of the most significant environmental battles in the region.
A lawsuit filed in 2000 reached the Supreme Court in 2007 and forced old, coal-fired power plants to use more pollution-control measures, leading to the largest power-plant cleanup in U.S. history. It took six years to stop the proposed 600-mile natural-gas pipeline that would run from West Virginia to North Carolina’s southern border and eight years to stop Duke Energy from storing coal ash in unlined pits near rivers. Almost 25 years ago, SELC was instrumental in putting a moratorium on new industrial hog farms in North Carolina. Lawsuits to control air, groundwater and nutrient pollution from the farms are ongoing.
“Derb put the place on the map,” Hornstein said. “The SELC in Chapel Hill is one of the best, most accomplished environmental law offices on the planet. It is remarkable what they have done in North Carolina. They’re in the Supreme Court, state courts, almost always overmatched by budgets and the number of lawyers on the other side, yet they often win.”
Middleton, now SELC president emeritus, says Carter’s courtroom successes have made a noticeable difference to the state overall. “There’s no individual in North Carolina who has done more to protect places and people, or won more cases than Derb,” he said. “In my legal point of view, he is a strategic genius because he knows not just environmental law and how it can be used, but also government, regulatory, industry and conservationist positions. And then he comes up with a plan. It’s all based on his love of North Carolina.”
Practicing public interest environmental law is a game of inches, not yards, and sometimes requires taking on causes that last for years if not decades. Carter’s legal connection to a stretch of swamp marsh in Pamlico County goes back nearly 40 years. He was a young NWF attorney when the federal government determined the wetlands were not protected and therefore the peat could be mined for energy. In 1982, Carter challenged the ruling, which shut down the mining and ultimately led to the creation of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
After red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1987, Carter pushed for reintroducing the animals into the refuge, later considered one of the most successful reintroductions of an extinct species. The population of wild red wolves reached more than 100, Carter said.
In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the population of red wolves within Eastern North Carolina’s five-county, red-wolf-recovery area had declined by half from the year before. SELC sued the agency for its failure to protect the population and for essentially managing the species into extinction by refusing to release captive animals into the wild.
The red wolf population continued to decline, and five years later there were only seven red wolves in the wild. “This is not just an endangered species,” Carter said. “It’s a critically endangered species, the only wild population in the world.”
The U.S. District Court ordered the USFW to resume its practice of reintroducing captive-bred wolves in the refuge. In April 2022, a litter of red wolf pups was born in the wild for the first time in four years.
In recent years, Carter and his team have increasingly focused on environmental justice issues, such as advocating for clean air and water and reducing or blocking a number of polluting industries — including the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline, another proposed biogas pipeline, more hog and poultry farms and wood pellet facilities — from locating in communities of color. The areas are also experiencing disproportionate impacts from climate change, which Carter calls the biggest threat to the state, its people and the world.
According to Middleton, the six states in which the SELC operates contribute the eighth-largest amount of global-warming emissions in the world. Because the Southeast is increasingly at the epicenter of the climate crisis, SELC has focused on curtailing climate change and its effects by reducing carbon emissions.
“If you’ve spent time on Albemarle-Pamlico Sound you would be a believer [in climate change] because you can almost see it happening,” Carter said. “There are places that I remember along the shoreline that aren’t there anymore. They’re underwater, either on the beachfront or where the barrier islands are retreating or in the wetland areas where the marsh is replacing the adjacent forested wetland.”
Sherri-White Williamson, director of environmental justice policy at the N.C. Conservation Network and founder of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network, said Carter has a reputation as an honest broker. “It’s sometimes hard in the environmental world to find or interact with someone who is straight all the time,” she said. “Derb has been one of those people that you know when he tells you something, you’ll know where he stands and that he isn’t going to waffle.”
As an avid outdoorsman and nature lover, Carter said he loves spending time in the more remote, unspoiled areas on the coast he’s fought to protect. He no longer hunts but is still an avid fly fisherman, a sport he picked up in law school and one he travels out West every year to pursue. “We have great fishing on the coast, although the fish aren’t as abundant as they used to be,” he said wistfully.
The dramatic changes along the coast have convinced Carter to spend the rest of his career doing what he loves most — practicing law. In 2021, after nearly 15 years as director of the Chapel Hill office, he stepped away from administrative duties, including managing about 30 attorneys.
“I want to get back to what I really enjoyed most — litigation, the brief writing and appearing before the judge,” Carter said. “That’s how I started this work.”