Sally Bethea, Age 61
Atlanta, Georgia; Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper
Sally Bethea spent her childhood playing in a tributary of the Chattahoochee River, chasing after the fish that swam in its waters behind her home. But by the time she was an adult, the river and its rich wildlife were in danger, damaged by overdevelopment. Years later, when she returned to her native Atlanta to study environmental planning at Georgia Tech, she again felt called to the river—this time to protect it.
In 1994, after years of working to curb pollution and rally for more responsible development on the river, Sally helped found the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization that protects the portion of the river stretching 8,770 square miles from the North Georgia mountains to the Florida border. Under her leadership, it has led large-scale cleanup efforts, created a “floating classroom” for students K-12, and successfully utilized the Federal Clean Water Act to enforce regulations regarding the dumping of raw sewage. They also oversee the health of the river by monitoring water quality and continuing scientific studies.
“A river has no voice, yet we depend on it for life. Sally is the voice of the Chattahoochee River,” says Heroes juror Jim Strickland. Her impact is noticeable: Water-quality levels are improving, and wildlife is starting to thrive.
Her fight, however, is not over. The river is the source of drinking water for 3.5 million people, and there’s much to be done to teach individuals, businesses, and government agencies how to conserve and preserve this resource. “I’m proud of our work to save this river,” says Sally, “and I dream about introducing my sons’ children to its beauty.”
Runners-Up: John Ruskey, Age 48
Clarksdale, Mississippi; Quapaw Canoe Company
Mike Clark, Age 52
St. Louis, Mississippi; Big Muddy Adventures
Floating down the Mississippi, surveying its untouched banks, John Ruskey and Mike Clark feel most at home. Owners of outfitting and tour companies on the Mississippi River, they volunteer together to protect the largest river system in North America, leading large-scale cleanups and canoe-building sessions. In 2011, they launched wildmiles.org to document and protect the river’s last untouched wilderness.
Audubon Nature Institute's Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program
Established 1993, New Orleans, Louisiana
Their emergency response team employed 24/7 triage to rehabilitate nearly 200 sea turtles after the Gulf oil spill.
Dana LaChance, Age 54
Dahlonega, Georgia, Fern Park
Dana turned family property into an eco-friendly subdivision, proving development doesn’t have to compromise natural resources and landscape.
Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust
Established 1883, Highlands, North Carolina
The trust cares for 2,400 acres in western North Carolina. Volunteers maintain trails, lead trips, and protect rare plants (such as the world’s largest living hemlock, the Cheoah).