On the Road With the Water Sentinels: Part 2
Reverend Mark Johnston, aka Captain Planet, is the director of Camp McDowell, an 1,100-acre slice of paradise in northwestern Alabama. His wife Maggie (below at center), a former teacher at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, heads up the camp's Environmental Center.
Every year some 6,000 Alabama youth attend environmental workshops at Camp McDowell, learning about the area's natural and human history and gaining a hands-on understanding of how their own everyday choices and actions affect the environment. Nearly 100,000 Alabama school kids have passed through the Environmental Center since its founding in the 1990s. Mark and Maggie feel they are changing Alabama one child at a time.
"We want to send kids home with knowledge to help them make wise decisions in their lives," Mark says. "For example, we teach them that when they turn on their light switch at home, it affects the coal strip mines here in Winston County. We can all make a difference in the little things we do, even just turning off the water while you're brushing your teeth."
When Mark came on board as camp director 20 years ago, Clear Creek, which runs through the property, was polluted with heavy metals from an adjacent strip mine. Mark undertook a David vs. Goliath fight against offending the coal company and won. Clear Creek and its tributaries now serve as an integral part of Camp McDowell's outdoor classroom.
This morning roughly a hundred 5th-graders from the Birmingham area are arriving for a 3-day workshop. We sit in on an early morning meeting with Maggie and camp instructors as they go over the schedule of workshops—Pond & Stream, Native Americans & the Earth, Authors and Explorers—then stroll down past the fork in the road to meet Mark for a jaunt through the Camp McDowell backcountry.
Crossing Clear Creek on the aptly-named swinging bridge, we enter a wonderland of mixed hardwood forest and serpentine canyons.
As we walk, Mark casually identifies trees and plants and talks animatedly about the area's native fish and wildlife. At a shallow cave beneath a rocky overhang, he tells us how Native Americans lived there well into the 20th century. His love of the land and respect for it are palpable. This is a man who deeply inhabits the place he calls home.
We arrive at a grotto where the stream cascades over granite ledges into a clear pool below. "A lot of children become real quiet in a place like this," he says. "They sense the spirituality here—you can feel it in their silence."
He stoops to pick up a rock in the pond, turns it over, and points out the tiny crustaceans living on its underside. "When I was a boy in Birmingham, I was the kid who never wanted to go inside. Most of the time I wanted to play in the creek in front of the house. That creek runs in a pipe now, and the kids in that neighborhood today don't know what it's like to play in a creek or see a crawfish or a diving beetle.
"Those are the kids who come to Camp McDowell," he says. "By exposing them to things here that have been destroyed or covered up at home, they learn to value and protect those places in the long run."
We stop at the edge of a clearing. Mark points out where the mixed native forest gives way to a mono-species pine forest planted by the coal company after it strip-mined the land. Swiping his finger on a rock in the stream, Mark shows us how deposits of iron, manganese, and other heavy metals are still present in the water, decades after active mining has ceased.
"When I arrived here 20 years ago, that waterfall you just saw was running orange, a terrible ugly orange. I was naïve—I thought people in government agencies or the miners themselves were surely monitoring the water. I asked the miners and the state Mining Commission to come check it out, so they did. They both said it was just fine."
But it wasn't just fine.
"We were starting the Environmental Center around that time," Mark says. "One of the teachers brought a water testing kit. She found far more heavy metals in the water than were supposed to be there. That's when I knew I'd been lied to and been had, and it made me really angry."
So, I ask, can one concerned citizen make a difference?
"Absolutely," Mark says. "But it's not enough just to get angry—emotion will get you only so far. The first thing I did was learn the law; you have to know what's allowed in the water. Then I went out and tested the water myself, took the samples to a laboratory, and did everything I could to hold the mining company accountable. Eventually they went bankrupt and got a receivership to try and stay away from the pain I was inflicting on them.
"The battle's never over," he muses. "You have to stay vigilant and keep fighting. Sometimes I wonder who's going to take up the fight after I'm done."
He smiles. "But I'm nowhere near done yet."