Sally BetheaWriter and Founding Director at Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

Sally Bethea

Atlanta, Georgia

This interview was conducted by Carly Schmidt on January 29, 2024. Press play to listen, or find the full audio transcript below the audio player.

00:00:02 Sally Bethea

In writing this book, one of the most fun things has been, once the book was done, and I’m now on a extended book tour, I’m finding it so rewarding to connect back up with people I’ve not seen for years. And they’re all not river advocates, but people in the community that I work with and realize what a bond we have. We are so lucky in the environmental community to have chosen careers in something that we are really passionate about and to work for organizations that are mostly mostly small enough and nimble enough where our ideas can float to the top and where we can affect some change.

00:00:56 Carly Schmidt

Hello, and welcome to River Network’s Meet Your Network series, where you get to hear from river, justice, and water advocates and their own voices. River Network envisions a powerful and inclusive movement that ensures abundant clean water for all people and nature to thrive. My name is Carly Schmidt. I am the membership and Communications Manager at River Network. I live and work in Denver, Colorado, on Traditional Ute, Cheyenne and Arapahoe land. I encourage you to learn more about the native lands that you live and work on at Today I am speaking to Sally Bethea, a long time leader in the River Network community, and she is also the founding director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and has written a book, Keeping the Chattahoochee, which tells her story as one of the first women in America to become a riverkeeper. We dive into a lot in this interview from Sally’s take on the importance of personal storytelling to ignite change, her experience telling stories about advocacy to general readers, as well as some of her earliest experiences and challenges that the network can learn a lot from. So please enjoy my conversation with Sally Bethea.

00:02:01 Carly Schmidt

Okay, so let’s kick it off with the first question. Your new memoir, Keeping the Chattahoochee, highlights, your experiences in restoring the neglected river. I’m curious what inspired you to write this memoir and what you hope will take away from it, especially as we’re talking about scaling up local capacity. I’m especially thinking of those folks with really big goals for water protection, but maybe not the ideal capacity to get it all done or to get it all done quickly. What moved you to share your story, and how might this be a useful resource for folks who are in that situation?

00:02:39 Sally Bethea

Well, there were a number of motivating factors. Really, for me, writing this environmental memoir, I’m not somebody who always wanted to write a book and, when I retired 9 years ago, I didn’t give it a single thought until about 5 years ago. I read a book that inspired me to go to the Chattahoochee River and take a walk every week on the same path and open my eyes and really look. And I found that to be such an incredible and surprising experience. I was seeing things I had never seen before, because we, just as humans, we blow past things. And certainly when I was the riverkeeper, and then I had 2 sons to raise as a single mom, I just I wasn’t paying attention. I thought I was. And so this experience of a year of walking at the river made me think maybe I should write something about this, because I do some some writing. I write a monthly column down here in Atlanta, and so I like to write and I kept notes in a journal about what I was seeing, what I was feeling, what I’m smelling at the river and every time I would go to the river I would be triggered to think of a story from my riverkeeping career and one thing led to another and I thought: maybe there’s something here that could be useful to people from your general reader, people of all ages, to river advocates in terms of an approach that would help draw people into the Chattahoochee watershed with my nature stories of my walk. And then in my flashbacks to riverkeeping, the stories I tell about what it took, at least during my 20 years as the Chattahoochee riverkeeper, to work to try to protect what is the most heavily used river of the state of Georgia.

I have really 2 main purposes, I guess. One, to express to the reader how wonderful it is to truly spend time in nature and pay attention. How great a mental meditation and physical experience, of course, and walking slowly, looking. It’s so important to our lives, particularly in the chaotic days we deal with. And then the second thing is, I felt like a lot of people don’t know what it takes to protect the river. All the different kinds of tools and strategies that you use. Early on somebody said, well, what is that, a riverkeeper? Do you get in a boat every day? Just go up and down the river looking for things? And I thought, I need to write something about my experience, because I think it might be helpful particularly to underscore that it can take a while to do these things. It takes dogged persistence, really. And it can take not just months, but years, and sometimes decades to get some results. And I think for young people that can be daunting, but then I feel like there’s a lot of optimism in my book in terms of the results that have occurred over the last 30 years since we started Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. So long answer to the fact I wanted to, you know, inspire, perhaps serve as an example of some good things to do, things not to do, and write it in a way that could be entertainment.

00:06:40 Carly Schmidt

Well, it was, and the writing was very beautiful, and appreciate all the stories you told. I do want to go back to something you said earlier. Just this kind of act of noticing. And you say, you know, as humans, we just tend to blow past things in our busy lives, we don’t really pay attention to the world around us. Something that really struck me was, in Chapter 3, you mention “unlearning hurrying” to really appreciate and notice the world around you. And that’s such an important concept right now, I think, for younger advocates in this age of burnout and, like you said, it’s really daunting to look at a movement and say, wow! It’s gonna be years, if not decades, before we see any progress. And this burnout is something we’re really trying to tackle at River Network and River Rally as well. But I’m curious your take on how important this unlearning hurrying is to kind of the efficacy of this kind of advocacy work. I wonder if it leads to the kind of patience you’re describing?

00:07:43 Sally Bethea

Right. Now I will say that this process of meditation, of unlearning hurrying, I have been privileged to do that in my retirement. I will own up to the fact that, while I was a river advocate for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper,. I was moving fast most of the time. I did not give myself permission to do what I have done in recent years. I wish I had done that. Now, having learned what I’ve learned, I hope I would do that going back again, because I just really didn’t allow myself enough time to spend in contemplation the river. I did some, of course, but it was like always thinking of tasks.

As for the long term nature of this work, we started with a $50,000 grant from the Turner Foundation in 1994, which was immensely generous. But we started with nothing. It took a few months to get an old canoe, which we never used all that much, and we had to get a patrol boat for our our shallow river. But we started with with not much, and yet we had big vision, big ideas to take on the decades-long pollution of the city of Atlanta, to educate and inform as many adults and children as we could, to deal with policy issues, to start monitoring the river all of these things. And it can be overwhelming. You’ve got to just realize that that it’s a step by step process and that you tackle, figure out your priorities, and tackle those things with an eye on the big vision and the future, but also a strong eye detail of what you’re doing today, because how you do your work, even if it’s organizing a clean up or a paddle trip somewhere, is going to speak to the core values of your organization, your mission and help bring people to engage, or not. It is overwhelming, and a lot of particularly young folks enthusiastically think: Well, I’m going to do this for 2 years, and I want to publish X and 2 years. You ought to look at the benchmarks along the way and celebrate when you get certain things done. It’s not just about the end, which is certainly the driver, but it’s the process and the goals you reach along the way.

00:10:52 Carly Schmidt

Yeah, totally. And you’re talking, too, about keeping a kind of values-based approach kind of top of mind, either values of the organization or your own personal mission, whether you’re you’re organizing events or river cleanups, or any of those kind of pieces. But you also emphasize, and even the act of writing his book is emphasizing the importance of river advocates’ personal narratives and telling their own stories along the way to contribute to the broader movement.

00:11:27 Sally Bethea

Yes, I think that’s critical.

00:11:28 Carly Schmidt

Yeah, what role are these stories playing in mobilizing folks to to join into this movement or, more broadly, what does that mean for the movement?

00:11:28 Sally Bethea

Well, with the riverkeeper movement, there’s one person who’s either the river keeper, bay keeper, sound keeper, and water keeper, and so forth. And the way the the concept works is that one person does get a lot of the attention and people wonder about that person. Where did they come from? Why are they doing this? And I know personally, I get drawn into an issue when I hear somebody’s story, and it helps me remember facts, issues, challenges, better when I can visualize a particular person, and so that has always worked well with the riverkeeper movement, and I think, to the extent possible, the river advocates of being open and willing to tell their stories as part of the explanation for a particular issue.

But also tell other people’s stories. In this book, I talk about Junior Errington down in in rural Herd County. His story is so important. He remembered when the river downstream of Atlanta was clean enough to drink out of. Or or Ralph Shaw, who, wonderful fellow, knew so much. He told us about a situation: big chicken, with chicken processors up in the Chattahoochee headwaters, and ultimately it took us and EPA 7 years, but we got that creek cleaned up from being filled with blood and guts and maggots and all this stuff flowing from the stormwater from where the big trucks with chickens were coming in, and feces, and all of that. Sadly Ralph was was dead by the time we resolved it, but I’m going to tell his story. So it’s telling the river’s story, but also really more so, the people in the watershed and who they are. And I think it’s just a great way to get river advocacy out there for folks who say well, what is that, really? What is river advocacy? Okay, you like rivers. What is that?

We have to try so hard to get out of the the wonky language. Even language we don’t think is that wonky. And I’ll tell you, the first couple of drafts of my book, there were some anonymous reviewers. And they said these drafts are like you’re writing to your peers. Maybe they’re even like an annual report or grant request. I’m thinking, yeah, probably so. And they said, the University of Georgia Press really wants something that will interest the general reader. And if you interest the general leader, you’re gonna be interesting interest of other folks, too, you know. And so even those who were more perhaps well informed about the issues. So I worked real hard to try. I don’t know if I accomplished it perfectly. This is my first and probably only book. One and done. But I had really a sense of satisfaction in telling the stories. How could it be that I could be in my seventies and never having noticed the beauty of the American beech leaves that hang on the trees throughout the whole winter on the lower boughs, and it made me wonder, why do they do that? And so I go down all these research rabbit holes. And then you find the the mutuality between the beech and other insects, the aphids and the ants, and it brought me so much closer to nature. And I thought, you know, I want to pass some of this along. And I had been reading a bunch of nature writers really, really world-class people who so inspired me with the prose. And in that process I learned so much about issues. If it had just been a plain article from a newsletter, I might not have paid as much attention to it.

00:16:28 Carly Schmidt

You mentioned that this kind of slowing down came from you know the privilege of being retired, and and having this this time on your hands, and not these kind of looming deadlines hanging over you. I think the world we’re in now is, you know, maybe different in a way, because we have the climate crisis looming over us and reminding us that we don’t have a whole lot of time. This is a very time sensitive issue, and we got to get moving. But also, I mean, there’s a balance right like, what would that have been like for you? Where at the peak of your career, if you had taken that time to slow down and look around. And this is such a hypothetical question. But I wonder if that would have changed anything.

00:17:00 Sally Bethea

I think it would have been a big help for me as an individual, and probably be a little perhaps calmer in various arenas. You just get a perspective when you go and immerse yourself in in nature and get a perspective that I think is then helpful. It’s like, you know, washing your your brain in sunlight and come back. Honestly, if I had just said, you know, let’s say, on a Friday, I’m not going to work after 3 0’clock. I will tell you honestly, I kind of worked 24/7, as my staff would tell you. It’s just the way I am. If I think of something, I’m doing it. But if I said: not too much structure, unless there’s really something that I have to do, I’m going to take off from 3 0’clock on on Friday, or even just take a Saturday morning, and not on work time, and I’m going to make it a priority to walk for 45 min around this park in my neighborhood, or get in the car and go to the Chattahoochee, or even do something a little further. You know how people will structure in exercise, going to the gym, into their agenda and into their calendar. I wish I had done a little more of that.

But the good news is I’ve done it now, and hopefully inspiring some other folks and also hopefully helping people understand the the connectivity between land and tributaries and watersheds. A lot of folks don’t understand that at all, really, because they’ve never thought about it. But I did a book talk recently to a group environmental educators. And they said, “Thank you so much for putting the science in here.” I was like, Wow! That makes me feel really good. I’m not a scientist, and I’m still waiting for somebody to catch me on something I was not correct in. But you know, science data information, these are so important. And who would have thought, even 10 years ago, that the word science would be such a nasty word for some people. but it’s hard to say what I would have done. Running an organization is like running a business, but I should have given myself permission and made it almost like an embedded notion, a embedded part of my life. I should have made it more structured, I think, to go and spend time, and and not just going out and jogging 5 miles and whatever, but going slowly, looking, observing, taking deep breaths. It’s just such a gift.

00:20:17 Carly Schmidt

It’s like scheduling that restorative time. I think we would all prefer to have like no schedule, and just be able to go as our feelings and moods dictated, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you need a little structure. That’s really great advice.

And the memoir really just spans a whole breadth of experiences from, you know, these really kind of joyful victories to moments of enormous concern, moments where you added issues to either your personal list of things you care about, or adding to the list of what the organization has to care about to protect the Chattahoochee. I’m curious if you want to talk about a really challenging moment in your advocacy work and how you navigated through it.

00:20:18 Sally Bethea

I guess I’m a pretty persistent person, but I like to think that I’m realistic, too. So I’m gonna only butt my head against the wall so many times before I try to find another avenue. But there were a number of occasions when it was really stressful, and it was very hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel. I have a chapter in that book, you may remember, where I talk about the Governor, the last Democratic Governor of Georgia, putting me on the Georgia Board of Natural Resources, and within 2 weeks or so of that appointment he told me and another conservation-minded person who was appointed the same time, to get in a room with 2 fellows from North Georgia who really did not like stream buffer protection laws, and that he was going to push both sides until we came to some resolution. And that was very hard because I felt that I was there representing the environmental community, also the organization in a way. [I was asked to] compromise and ask environmental folks to give up some stuff. [This compromise meant] reducing the trout buffer from a hundred feet to 50 feet and warm water streams of 25 feet. Trying to work to figure out, understanding that we were going to be giving up, but understanding what could we get in return that was at least as good, if not better. And then working with these 2 fellows from North Georgia and the Governor’s office. It went on for over 3 months, and it was it was challenging. We got a major investment for a study at the University of Georgia on buffers, and the idea was that, when the Governor got a second term, we would use that scientific data from North Georgia streams, we would use that data to improve the program, but he wasn’t reelected. So we were left with some improvements. It was really particularly hard to deal with my friends in the conservation community. Why are you reducing the buffer 100 for buffered to 50 feet?

00:24:54 Carly Schmidt

Did it kind of feel like everyone who went in there had different views for what kind of compromise they would accept, or just different visions for what the solution could look like overall?

00:24:54 Sally Bethea

Well, I mean, the 2 fellows from North Georgia really didn’t like the regulations at all, so they would have been happy if they’d gone away. It was really just 4 of us. And then the other conservation minded individual who had previously been Lieutenant Governor of the State of Georgia, and I was the environmental side, and you know we were looking to create a functioning buffer, riparian, buffer protection. That was clear, no vague language, that would guide developers in terms of how close they could get to streams, whether they could approach on the buffers under certain circumstances, and so that was tense. That was hard. I gnashed my teeth and I cried. I did everything.  I cried. I didn’t cry in the room with the people.

00:26:08 Carly Schmidt

You did mention the book at one point: crying when you get mad.

00:26:08 Sally Bethea

Yes, I do cry when I get mad, and I thought I need to put that book. I mean, emotions are important. People will say, Oh, look, she’s being so emotional or she’s a hysterical, non-compromising environmentalist, and I just purely hate that. Whereas a man who would say or do something similar wouldn’t be. But that’s the world we live in, and it still seems to be that, here we are 30 years later. But, I you try to look at things from people’s different perspectives. At the end of the day we, as river advocates, have boards, we have missions, we are little businesses that are focused on enough clean water for people and wildlife. And that’s our job. And that’s what I kept telling people. Look, I’m being paid to do a job, you know, and do it to my damndest.

00:27:05 Carly Schmidt

At this point [in the story], I think you’re the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Executive Director of the organization. What did your team look like at this [early] stage? What was the size of the team? How much support did you have? You’re laughing, so I feel like it’s none.

00:27:19 Sally Bethea

Well, when you start, there’s nothing, so you have to create something out of nothing. And yes, we did have a $50,000 grant, we had a little basement office for free, we had an old beat up canoe, and we started with more than a lot of groups are able to start with, and we had a board of 6 people. Our co-founders were Ted Turner’s daughter and husband so, you know, we had people who could open doors for us. This was the mid nineties. That was a time of particular prosperity. And we were, you know, lucky in many aspects. We had great media attention to what we were doing, but I was the only paid staff person, full time, for the first 6 months. I had a wonderful woman, who was a volunteer, and then we brought her on halftime. Then, about a year year and a half later, we were able to hire a young man who would be our general counsel. He took a big cut salary to to work with us. But, in the meantime, we had been working real hard at raising money from events and other things. But we started off with with, you know, like any group starts off and and remember back then, back in the dark ages, there were no smart phones. There was Internet in 1994. Yes, it sure existed, I wasn’t using it. Email, all the things that make life complicated, all the information at your fingertips. We had none of that. Drones to take fabulous pictures of your river from above, none of them. So we used what we had. And as we raise more money we, I think, fairly judiciously, added staff.

There is nothing more important, I think, than ensuring that your organization will be there forever. Unless you just have a very narrow mission and you accomplish it and you’re done and you disband. But having a thriving, sustainable. nonprofit organization that is always there is one of the things that I feel most proud of, having helped push that along for 20 years. And now other people are pushing it farther. Even as we got more money, I wanted to make sure we had money in the bank. You just don’t know what’s gonna happen. In 2008, we had to drop a $100,000 out of our budget because the the big crash, recession and all that. So you have to be nimble and be able to be resourceful in how you find people to help you. As we all know; and you’ve got it in your name, River Network; there is nothing more important than networking, staying in touch with and finding out who’s good at what. And, as I always say, knowing what you’re not so good at, knowing what you don’t know, and looking for expertise and skills elsewhere to augment what you’re trying to do.

00:30:45 Carly Schmidt

Yeah, totally. And, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, I’m counting a staff of 15 today?

00:30:50 Sally Bethea

I think 18. The organization has a budget of over 2 million dollars, 3 offices. about 18 staffers, a couple of them, maybe part time, huge fleet of boats, and it didn’t happen overnight.

00:31:09 Carly Schmidt

I think it’s important to note that you end the book with a note on joy, which has been coming up in River Network’s, work in a lot of folks’ and advocates’ other work as well. I think of it as kind of an acknowledgement of how hard the work actually is, and and how patient you have to be, but also finding moments of connection with the work as well. I’m curious what has been the role of joy in your career. But also, how do you see this approach having an impact  for folks who are still very much in the trenches, doing the work.

00:31:49 Sally Bethea

I’ve had hopes and aspirations, both personally and professionally, in my life. I’ve learned over time, sometimes the hard way, that expectations can be damaging. If you expect you’re going to do something by a certain age or in the first 6 months of your organization, or whatever, you you can hope and you can plan for. But I think, finding joy in the small things and finding the wonderful little balls that hang on sycamore trees throughout the entire winter, and, like these little polka dots against the sky. I find joy in the small things and I find joy that literally, just today, I had an opportunity to connect with the publisher of a small newspaper with a riverkeeper staffer in a way that I think is going to be beneficial to the future. There’s nothing you could say happened particularly, but there is joy in connecting with people and in connecting with nature and not having your expectations so big that they’re not attainable. Be proud of what you’re doing because there are many different ways to protect a river. You don’t have to follow exactly the waterkeeper model and follow the trademark. You just need to love a river and figure out what she needs and do what you can. What I always told our staff when we would be overwhelmed: before this organization was created, none of this was happening. You’ve got to look and celebrate, absolutely. I have a chapter in the book about celebrations, and it is so critical.

00:33:51 Carly Schmidt

Thank you very much to Sally Bethea for talking with me today. If you enjoyed this conversation, please consider becoming a River Network member to be the first to know about new conversations with leaders across the network. Thank you very much for listening.