April Hellraiser

Mark Donham


Mark Donham was a country-and-western singer who hadn’t spent much time thinking about the environment when he moved into a run-down house at the edge of a forest in southern Illinois. Twenty years later, Donham has not only transformed his home into a wind- and solar-powered haven, but he has gone on to become a fierce protector of his backyard: the Shawnee National Forest.

In 1985, when Donham learned that the National Forest Service was planning to apply the highly toxic herbicide Hexazinone over the Shawnee lands—which include a stream that crosses Donham’s property—he and his wife, Kristi, decided to stop it. They did some quick research and filed an administrative appeal with the NFS, requesting that the agency agree to prepare environmental impact statements before any spraying could occur. Not one drop of Hexazinone has touched the Shawnee since then.

“Letting us win—that was their first mistake, because that’s what made us think we could make a difference,” says Donham, who went on to co-found the Regional Association of Concerned Environmentalists (RACE). With a copy of the federal rules of procedure and a few tips from law clerks, he has now represented himself in 10 lawsuits against the NFS, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy, all in the interest of preserving the forest that surrounds his home. Following a swift initiation when a judge threw out his first lawsuit on a technicality, he has sharpened his skills and won a total of five victories against the government. Tom Buchele, an attorney who represents RACE in other suits, calls Donham “an equal in every respect. You’d think he’d gone to law school.”

Now a billboard painter by profession, Donham continues to spend two to eight hours a day on his environmental work, and his efforts have paid off. He has stopped several timber sales and has succeeded, through legal mediation, in requiring the Energy Department to conduct an assessment of the potential environmental impact of a radioactive-waste treatment facility planned for the area. Donham has also helped unite environmental groups in Illinois, says Jim Bensman, chair of the Sierra Club’s Shawnee National Forest Committee. In 1994, the Sierra Club and the Illinois Audubon Society joined Donham’s group in the courtroom and succeeded in putting a halt to all timber sales in the Shawnee until the NFS drafts a new management plan for the forest that better addresses the impact of logging.

Next on Donham’s docket is creating a litigation strategy to stop environmental destruction in other states, from West Virginia to Missouri. His opponents had better be ready for a fight. Says Donham: “When we first got into this, agencies would brush us off and say, ‘Sue us.’ Now they know we will, and that we might win.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.