While some kids might prefer curling up on the couch with a queue of cartoons, it was easier to find a young Nelson Brooke catching crayfish—or at least giving it his most valiant effort in the little stream in the woods by his parents’ house.
A lifetime of enjoying nature, and devoting his career to conserving it, is what made the Birmingham native the right choice for the 2019 James S. Dockery, Jr. Southern Environmental Leadership Award, established in 1993 to honor SELC’s co-founder and first board chair, and to recognize leaders who have helped build excellent environmental institutions.
“I have always loved being in the forest and exploring along streams,” says Brooke, who has served as Black Warrior Riverkeeper since 2004. “It’s peaceful and offers endless enjoyment. Spending my childhood enjoying the great outdoors with my family instilled a lifelong fascination with, and love for, the natural environment around us.”
Brooke would go on to receive his Eagle Scout award in 1997 and graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder four years later. He would then jumpstart his career in conservation by spending two years managing a 50-acre wolf sanctuary, called Mission: Wolf, in south-central Colorado.
“When I was exposed to activism and hard-nosed advocacy initiatives in college, it really sunk in that my passion for the outdoors, interest in working in a field that had a strong connection to nature, and my newfound fascination with the energy around advocacy, would propel me into a career that really resonated with me,” says the environmental advocate of 24 years.
And he’s been on a mission to restore the Black Warrior River and its tributaries ever since, partnering with SELC on some of our most important cases in Alabama, including a significant victory for water quality in May when a federal court ruled that toxic pollution from an abandoned coal mine outside Birmingham violates the Clean Water Act. Now, the Drummond Company, heavily involved in the mining and processing of coal, will be held accountable for coal mining waste and acid mine drainage polluting the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River at the company’s defunct Maxine Mine.
Brooke also had a hand in pushing back on the Alabama Department of Transportation’s tendency to promote unnecessary, destructive and politically-motivated road projects including the Northern Beltline, draining funding from other critical transportation needs at the expense of Birmingham’s water quality and natural resources.
The list of jobs he takes on as Riverkeeper is lengthy: Brooke patrols and photographs the Black Warrior River and its tributaries from the land, water, and air. He looks for pollution problems, responds to citizen complaints, researches and analyzes polluters’ permits, collects samples for laboratory analysis, and educates the public about the beauty of the river and threats to it.
“Doing research on pollution sources as Riverkeeper has opened a floodgate of information about polluters, politics, and all the dirty tricks that hold Alabama and its people back from their potential,” says Brooke. “Money, greed, and power corrupt those in leadership positions, creating a massive leadership vacuum.”
When asked what he loves most about the watershed, he mentions how it offers such raw and wild experiences, despite being taken advantage of by polluters for generations, and losing much of its free flow to numerous dams.
“And the people,” says Brooke, who was also named the 2010 Alabama River Hero by the Alabama Rivers Alliance. “The people I meet while out in the watershed patrolling are so genuine, so passionate about their river, and so willing to join the fight to protect their natural heritage.”
It’s their stories and commitment to preserving the river as an asset for future generations that keep him “enthused,” Brooke adds.
“Doing research on pollution sources as Riverkeeper has opened a floodgate of information about polluters, politics, and all the dirty tricks that hold Alabama and its people back from their potential.”
—Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper
He works to empower these and other stakeholders throughout the watershed while advocating for compliance with environmental laws and finding solutions to pollution problems.
“Understanding that our water and air is being polluted more than most realize, and that we lack the leadership necessary to clean this state up, has propelled me in my work to challenge the pro-polluter status quo here,” he adds.
Brooke also runs the Riverkeeper Patrol Program and coordinates with the Riverkeeper’s Legal Program.
As if that doesn’t keep him busy enough, he’s also a founding board member of Gasp, where he’s spent countless hours as a volunteer to advance healthy air and environmental justice in Birmingham. In addition, he serves as an advisory council member to Coosa Riverkeeper.
Says SELC Executive Director Jeff Gleason, who presented Brooke with the award earlier this month, “He is an environmental leader statewide and has devoted his career to working toward a better Alabama.”
And he’s not planning on stopping any time soon.
“As a Riverkeeper, as a co-founder and board member of Gasp, as a father, and as a proud Alabamian, I will continue to loudly press forward on behalf of clean air, clean water, public resources, healthy soil, and healthy people.”