ECOLOGY HAS MORE HEROES THAN YOU MIGHT THINK

by Whit Gibbons


August 3, 2008


Some environmental stories are worth updating and retelling, especially when they have good endings, such as this one.

During the last century, a man in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, began telling elected officials and the general public about the historical, cultural, and environmental significance of a local stream. The stream had suffered abuse by industrial impacts and blatant disregard for environmental stewardship.

The man is John Wathen. The stream is called Hurricane Creek. Last week the Tuscaloosa County Commission agreed to set aside 249 acres on the creek for a public park. This enlightened action by the commission is commendable not only for the land protection itself but for the recognition of John's message as an important one to support. Several years ago I wrote a column about John, praising his kind of environmental activism and lauding John himself as a hero. To reprint parts of it today seems timely and appropriate.

Most great causes or significant advances throughout history have heroes associated with them. Ecology and environmentalism are no exception and the history books will recognize some for many years. Aldo Leopold is known for advancing principles of conservation. President Theodore Roosevelt implemented countless conservation measures from his political vantage point. Archie Carr led the way for international efforts to protect sea turtles.

But the chapters are always too short to acknowledge some of the lesser known, but equally important, contributors to a better environment. I refer to the countless numbers of people who are concerned about keeping a healthy environment and who go about making a difference in local communities through their commitment. We all know people like this, and the downside of mentioning any one individual is that dozens of others who also contribute go unmentioned. But that is the way of the world, so let me mention a person, John Wathen, who is making a difference environmentally at a place, Hurricane Creek, I am familiar with.

I have been to the creek many times; my first memory of it was as a five-year-old during World War II with my grandparents and seeing a clear stream running over and around rocks big enough for a family picnic. High cliffs with hardwoods and pines framed the far side. Sandbars lined the near shore up to the edge of the woodland. My memories are of deep pools with fish, the sounds of swirling waters around rocks, and the fresh smell of outdoors.

Of course, many places in this country have such a creek, and the exact location does not matter for my point, which is that in the years since my childhood, Hurricane Creek has changed. Upstream pollution, trash from negligent creek visitors, and a general degrading occurred over time. But the water continued to pour forth, and the creek remained.

Then a man named John Wathen set about to make some changes for the better, to return Hurricane Creek to as close to its original pristine condition as possible. He canoed the creek, picking up cans and bottles in the shallows and on the shore, plucking plastic bags and wrappers from the vegetation. He persuaded others to take up the cause of restoring a beautiful piece of nature to its former self. He developed an organization called Friends of Hurricane Creek.

John Wathen faced the same obstacles from political and commercial interests that anyone does when trying to set things right. Pollution is not an easy thing to quell with big business and self-serving politics involved. Attitudes are not always easy to change when a community decides that nothing can be done because the problem's too big or the political opposition too powerful. But Wathen persisted. He still persists. And the creek is again beginning to look like my long-ago memory of it.

Hurricane Creeks are all over the country, and most of them need a protector. Such people do not always get mentioned in books on the history of the environment, but their efforts are vital to all of us. We still have heroes around who will work against steep odds to protect the environment. And every one of them could use help.

Some will finally be rewarded, as have John Wathen and Hurricane Creek, a place I would like to take my own grandchildren.



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