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Scrapbook: 'River Heroes' Honored by Alabama Rivers Alliance

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April 01, 2009

'River Heroes' Honored by Alabama Rivers Alliance


On March 20, the Alabama Rivers Alliance presented River Heroes awards to Reverend Mark Johnston and Dr. Bryan Burgess, pictured above. Cindy Lowry, Executive Director for ARA, presented the awards "in recognition of lifetime achievement." Rev. Johnston and Dr. Burgess have provided environmental education to more than 120,000 Alabama youth.

Burgess, a farmer and former professor of earth sciences at Jacksonville State University, served for four years as conservation chair of the Sierra Club's Alabama Chapter. After getting certified in water-quality monitoring by Alabama Water Watch, he brought the Club's Water Sentinels Program to Alabama and was co-leader for six years. The program has provided environmental training to more than 30,000 school kids and placed water monitoring kits in schools and county offices throughout the state.


Johnston, below, an avid fisherman "since I could walk," is the Executive Director of Camp McDowell, an Episcopal camp and conference center in Nauvoo, Alabama. In 1991 he founded the McDowell Environmental Center, now directed by his wife, Maggie. To date, more than 80,000 students have attended the residential environmental education program.


"Mark and I share a common goal," says Burgess, "to provide training for youth and to equip them for making informed decisions about their environment. We're now seeing the results at the polls as the youth are advancing to voting age." He and Maggie Johnston jointly established a watershed training program for Alabama public school teachers at Camp McDowell. Participants in a 2007 training are pictured below.


In 1999, Burgess and his wife Leslie co-founded Friends of Rural Alabama, which has been instrumental in closing three hog factories and levying heavy fines on another. With grants he obtained from the EPA, Burgess helped develop an aerial photography and satellite imaging system that mapped factory farm operations in Alabama. By overlaying his results onto the state Department of Environmental Management's map of impaired waters, he identified many more pollution sources than appeared on the state's Web site.

Burgess obtained additional EPA funding to map potential nutrient sources in 16 states and built a Geographic Information System for each state to show this mapping. Then, with funding he secured from the World Wildlife Fund and Norcross Wildlife Fund, he set up computer networks to host the systems, made them available to 20 conservation organizations in 16 states, and trained more than 60 conservation groups on how to use the system to assist with their clean water campaigns.


Reverend Johnston, a carpenter by training, was named Alabama's Outstanding Young Religious Leader in 1981 after he helped build a rural church whose membership and community involvement then grew dramatically. An Alabama Volunteer of the Year award followed for his work with retarded citizens, and in 1985 he started the West Alabama Food Bank, which gives away more than 1 million pounds of food a year.

Johnston became an environmental activist to combat illegal mining practices. "Strip mining was harming the watershed where I lived," he says, "but when I tried to do something about it I was lied to by miners and members of state agencies, my life was threatened, and powerful people tried to get my bishop to rein me in." But he persevered, and for eight years in the 1990s he led the fight to restore wetlands and water quality, protect 226 acres of national forest lands, and compel mining companies to address problems with their operations.


In 2002, concerned that the Department of Environmental Management had "broken its trust" with citizens, Johnston instigated the ADEM Reform Coalition and served as its co-chair for many years. (Burgess was also instrumental in ARC's founding.) A former President of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, Johnston helped stop illegal dumping of toxic waste in a local surface mine and halt pollution of Clear Creek, near his home, by a garment dye company.

Johnston, pictured below on Wyoming's Snake River, says he can stand up in a canoe going through a set of rapids steering with one hand while hanging on to a fishing rod with a big fish on the line.


Top photo, teacher training photo, and Bryan Burgess photos by Leslie Burgess. Mark Johnston photos by Maggie Wade Johnston.


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