When Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, his battered men in gray started home—any way they could get there. Among the walking was Nathaniel Joseph Green. Wearing shoes crafted from a horse collar, Lisa Sikes’ paternal great-grandfather trudged from North Carolina to his family’s farm outside Screven. That’s how long her clan has embraced the black water and sugar-white sand of the Satilla River watershed.
And that’s why Lisa Sikes couldn’t lie on her Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, couch and brood about what was about to happen four miles as the “coal ash blows,” she says—from her parents’ home on Sikes Road. Newton and Jean Sikes’ daughter—the second of four siblings—boiled into action, leveraging her education, professional skills and work schedule.
Following a text from her mama in early 2016, Lisa’s first reaction to the Broadhurst proposal was: “Are you kidding me?” Since she owns her own business, Lisa could manage her time to use every ounce of her three college degrees to research what Republic Services was planning for its 2,200-acre Broadhurst Environmental Landfill. Through a freedom-of-information request, she obtained the 750-page U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rail-spur application. “I read it, and I read it, and I read it,” she said.
Coincidentally, Lisa and her father have the identical degree—geography—from the University of Georgia. She also has a master of fine arts in set design from the University of North Georgia, along with a post-baccalaureate certificate in geological information systems (GIS). In short, she evolved into a software wizard who couldn’t and wouldn’t be baffled by the technical lingo which is common in government documents. She’s a former geographer of the red-tape-laden U.S. Census Bureau, too.
The more Lisa dug into matters, the more motivated she got. “I am just as worried about the dust from coal ash as I am the water,” she said. She mused about the joy of spending Christmas and summer vacations with her Screven grandparents. “I know what it smells like after a rain,” she said. “I cherish the times Uncle Fred Sikes took us swimming in the Little Satilla River.” Lisa explained that those childhood memories inspired her to do more than “just rant on Facebook.”
Instead, she became one of the angels who lit on the shoulders of those fighting to protect our natural resources. A few on that long list of angels are Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States; an anonymous benefactor to help with legal costs; and attorney Joe Gote from the Netherlands, who’s contributing his advice pro bono—for free—just as Lisa has donated her services.
As volunteers struggled to wade through hard-to-understand wording, Lisa descended with energy and expertise. She’s put together maps and illustrations that would have cost a fortune if she had charged the marketable rate. Lisa’s knowledge added immeasurable lift to the arguments against a wetlands-destroying rail spur and trainloads of toxic coal ash. Right now, she’s among those who hope there can be an amicable resolve to the controversy.
Nonetheless, Lisa inherits her passion for nature through DNA. After a 37-year career, her dad retired as a ranger with the National Park Service. Newton Sikes spent his last eight years on Cumberland Island. His daughter gets misty-eyed talking about the love of her sense of place, dating back to Nathaniel Joseph Green’s generation. On her desk, there’s a quotation by Edward Abbey: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”
Lisa Sikes may not give herself enough credit to accept the “angel” accolade, but trust me. She has shown over the past 16 months that her soul is in no danger of ruination from inaction.