Aerial view of the National Coal Corporation mountaintop removal site on Zeb Mountain in Campbell County, Tenn. (Photo: SouthWings)

From our limited vantage point on Earth, it is nearly impossible to comprehend the scale and impact of mountaintop removal coal mining, over-development, deforestation or large-scale oil spills such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It is only from the air that you can fully grasp the devastation.

That’s why, in 1996, three conservation-minded pilots in the Chattanooga area—Hume Davenport, Jay Mills and Bobby Davenport—formed the aviation nonprofit organization SouthWings to provide an aerial vantage point for environmental challenges affecting the southeastern United States.

“I had been flying for a group out West, LightHawk, and I came to understand that such a service would be necessary for the Southeast,” Hume Davenport, SouthWings’ executive director, said. “At the time, the central part of the Cumberland Plateau was being heavily clear cut to feed the pulp and paper industry through chip mills. It was happening at an unsustainable pace, which was evident through casual observation by air.”

Today, SouthWings is recognized throughout the region for providing skilled pilots and aerial education to enhance conservation efforts across the Southeast. The group conducts flights—at no charge to flight partners and passengers—concerning water quality and wetlands; land conservation; mining; forest protection and restoration on private and public lands; wildlife habitat; land use, such as development and sprawl; and other conservation-related issues as they arise.

“SouthWings enables those we fly to better understand—from an otherwise inaccessible vantage point—the scale, magnitude and relationships of cumulative and compounding environmental effects,” said Davenport, who is based at the organization’s home office in Asheville, N.C. “We call it the flying classroom. It is just another tool for people to engage and understand what is going on.”

SouthWings works in 11 southeastern states to address mountaintop removal coal mining, water-quality protection, environmental justice, forest ecosystem conservation and preservation of Florida’s natural coastline.

Volunteer pilots have flown thousands of elected officials, researchers, community leaders and conservation organizations over globally significant ecosystems of the Southeast. Media representatives from most major news sources have flown with SouthWings, from The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times to National Public Radio and National Geographic Magazine.

Aerial view of Florida’s Nature Coast, one of the longest pristine and mostly undeveloped coastal wetlands systems left anywhere along the Gulf of Mexico, comprised of the counties along Florida’s Gulf Coast from Pasco County to Wakulla County. (Photo: SouthWings)

The group has also developed a significant campaign to respond to the BP Gulf oil disaster that occurred in April 2010. The organization founded the Gulf Monitoring Consortium and will open a new office this summer in New Orleans to continue their involvement in Gulf monitoring and restoration efforts.

“During the oil spill, we realized that we could help cover the story; we flew a record-setting number of flights around the spill with the media,” Davenport said. “However, there is still oil along the coastline that needs to be addressed. There is a lot of restoration work that is about to commence, and we will be involved in that.”

The practice of mountaintop removal in the Southeast is a primary issue for SouthWings. Mountaintop removal, a form of surface mining, occurs in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.

Currently, Tennessee has 15 active surface mines in three counties—Campbell, Claiborne and Anderson counties—and coal mining activities are expected to increase in the state. In fact, a 2011 report by the conservation organization Southern Environmental Law Center put Tennessee's northern Cumberland Plateau on its list of the 10 most endangered regions in the South, citing mountaintop removal coal mining in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee as a threat to the region's natural resources, which include some of the most biologically diverse temperate zone forests in the world.

SouthWings is working to support passage of the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a piece of legislation that would end mountaintop removal coal mining (a form of surface mining) on mountains above 2,000 feet in elevation. In March, the state Senate refused action on the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, and a House subcommittee sent it to a summer study session. Lawmakers are expected to take a close look at the human health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining this summer in order to decide what legislative action to pursue in 2013.

SouthWings is committed to bringing information to the debate about mountaintop removal in Tennessee, according to Davenport.

“We have spent 14 years working on mountaintop removal mining in the Southeast, which gives us great background and experience to bring to the discussion,” Davenport said. “In the state of Tennessee, there has not been a full debate about mountaintop removal yet. We want to expand the debate to ensure that all interests are captured.”

With a staff of six and approximately 40 volunteer pilots on call, SouthWings’ staff relies on partnerships with numerous other conservation organizations to accomplish their goals. The group has a long history of working with Appalachian Voices on mountaintop removal coal mining issues in the Southeast to highlight the practice’s devastating impacts on human health, water quality, ecosystems, tourism and the economy.

“We are a proud partner of SouthWings, and they have been and will continue to be an integral part of the campaign to protect our mountains in Appalachia,” said Appalachian Voices’ Tennessee Director J.W. Randolph. “Mountaintop removal is an inherently visual issue. The best way to understand mountaintop removal is to see it firsthand; the next-best thing is to see it from the air to get a sense of how immense these sites are.”

SouthWings is also working to support passage of the Tennessee Wilderness Act, a move that would protect nearly 20,000 acres of land within Cherokee National Forest as a permanent wilderness area. Currently, only 10 percent of Cherokee National Forest is officially designated as wilderness, the highest environmental protection for federal public lands.

For Davenport, the “big picture” point of view that SouthWings provides also includes room for solutions—and hope.

“Sometimes people think we go around taking photographs of horror stories, but that is not what we do; we are really focused on solutions and creating possibilities for positive outcomes for the environment,” he said. “Often, what we see from the airplane is somewhat shocking, but we also understand that there are solutions—that is what we hope to motivate.”

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. She enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on Earth. Visit her blog at

Aerial view of the Kingston coal ash spill. On Dec. 22, 2008, a retention pond wall collapsed at Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant in Harriman, Tenn., releasing 1 billion gallons of toxic fly ash. The 40-acre pond was used to contain ash created by the coal-burning plant. (Photo: John Wathen, SouthWings)