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.”