“I grew up hunting fishing, with a love for the outdoors. We used to travel to the Pamlico and Pungo, and I would come down there with my dad. Then when I was in college I came down with my friends. It’s an area that has been near and dear to my heart for many years.”
Also near and dear to Jerry Eatman’s heart was conservation — the Raleigh business attorney’s work often overlapped with land-use issues, and he’d been involved with conservation groups for years. When he and his wife built a second home on the Pamlico River, Eatman went looking for an organization that shared his interests, particularly about water quality and wetland preservation.
“I was really looking for something grassroots, hands-on, doing the dirty work of conservation, and I found it in PTRF. That’s exactly what I was looking for,” Eatman said. “The thing I’ll say about Sound Rivers and PTRF — and I’ve said this many times — you get the biggest bang for your dollar. I’ve never worked with so many people who do so much with so little. They all have just been tremendous; they’ve done a great job. The people I’ve been on the board with over the years — they give their time, they actually roll up their sleeves and clean up the river and lobby legislators, and that’s always a thankless task.”
Eatman’s volunteerism, however, has extended beyond that, delving into the law by lending his legal expertise to the Sound Rivers’ cause, also serving as board president before and during the merger between the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation and the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation to become Sound Rivers in 2015.
“There are very few options for pro bono environmental help. There’s, of course, SELC, and they’ve done some wonderful work, but they have way more demand for assistance than they have the capacity to handle. They only have so much bandwidth. They knew I was willing to take things on if it was important,” Eatman said.
He’s been a part of several legal successes over the years, cases in which he said Sound Rivers has made a difference: at Rose Acre Farms, preventing another poultry farm from building in the Tar-Pamlico watershed near Rocky Mount, legally challenging a DEQ permit that would allow the discharge of millions of gallons of fresh water per day into the brackish headwaters Blounts Creek and most recently, stopping the clearcutting of land for a proposed landfill that would neighbor a historically Black neighborhood in Kittrell.
“It’s hard to say sometimes how much you’re moving the needle, but I do feel like that we made a difference,” Eatman said. “One of the things I’ve seen in the last 10 years, with big funders of environmental efforts, is that more and more people have come to look at it as an investment. Many of these people are asking, ‘What am I getting in return for my investment? Show me some results.’ And that’s hard to do, because sometimes you’re accomplishing really bad things from happening. It’s not so much what you did — it’s what you kept from happening. Did we stop something in its tracks? Did we stop some bad legislation? Did we stall enough that they gave up and left? Your wins are not as obvious as in other areas.”
What he’s also seen is Sound Rivers evolve into one of the most respected environmental voices in North Carolina.
“I was there when we made the transtion from kind of a local, sort of river cleanup group, to an organization that represents one of the largest estuarine systems in the world,” Eatman said. “It is the voice of that system. Thanks to people like Heather (Deck) and a long line of really good executive directors, we’ve got a lot of credit in the environmental community. … The respect that state organizations have for our organization speaks volumes about the integrity of the organization — it’s a wonderful organization. I can’t say enough about it.”