Environmental Justice and the Gullah Geechee: The National Environmental Policy Act’s Potential in Protecting the Sea Islands

Today, the South Carolina Lowcountry is one of the fastest growing coastal areas in the United States. The Sea Islands are typically developed through “large scale landscape conversions to single-family resort and retirement communities.” However, rises in property value and opportunities for high-end resort development have led to drastic loss of Sea Island land and disintegration among the Gullah Geechee people who have traditionally occupied that land. The consequences of this loss are severe for the Gullah Geechee because it “equates to a loss of their community’s culture and way of life.”

Despite the cultural importance of Sea Island land, the Gullah Geechee “are now being denied access to the very land they call home.” Notwithstanding their resilience and culture, the “historic people of the Sea Islands are in danger, and the environment is being tested under the enormous stress of fervent real estate development . . . . Current efforts to limit the corporatization of the Sea Islands to protect ecological and cultural life . . . . are still incomplete.” Moreover, the only federal statute specifically aimed toward preserving Gullah Geechee heritage—the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Act—has been criticized for its inability to protect the living culture.

The Act alone is insufficient to “retain the traditional integrity of the Sea Islands” because it does not address existing threats to the survival of Gullah Geechee culture. This Note argues that, outside of the Act, federal statutory protection for Sea Island land and culture may arise under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), which is well-suited to consider the Gullah Geechee’s unique relationship with their coastal environment.

This Note proceeds in four Parts. Part II describes the history of the Gullah Geechee people, the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Act, the heirs’ property model of ownership and its problems, and NEPA’s requirements. Part III considers how an environmental justice analysis can be implemented into the threshold NEPA determination to require consideration of a proposed project’s impact on the Gullah Geechee people and culture. Part III also explores alternative forms of protection that may flow from NEPA’s application. Finally, Part IV concludes by reiterating NEPA’s viability as a tool for ensuring environmental justice concerns are considered at the outset of any proposed project on Sea Island land.