Altamaha Riverkeeper founder to retire

The man who was the founder and face of the Altamaha Riverkeeper advocacy organization is retiring.

After a decade, James Holland will be leaving the job of river watchdog May 1. The former crabber is known for his folksy manner and his confrontational approach to developers, regulators and polluters.

“James is a founder of this organization and has played a key role in defining who we are, in terms of our field-based work and our work with the community,” said Deborah Sheppard, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper group. “He’s created a place in the environmental movement that is larger than life.”

Holland said he is most proud of his efforts to educate residents about the river system, including countless presentations to schools and service organizations.

“When we started, hardly anybody used the words ‘water quality,’ and now everybody’s talking about it,” he said.

Over the years, Holland set out by boat to take water samples and photographs of pollution on the Altamaha and its tributaries, the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers. The evidence he gathered was sometimes used by his nonprofit organization to mount lawsuits or to challenge regulators on issues including Middle Georgia logging operations, erosion from developments, sewage spills in Macon and problems with sewage treatment plants in Dublin and Cochran, and industrial waste from factories such as SP Newsprint in Dublin and Rayonier in Jesup.

Holland said his two biggest concerns in the watershed right now are pollution from the Rayonier pulp mill and sewage spills in Macon. He said he hopes his successor will concentrate on those problems in the immediate future.

Sheppard said the Altamaha Riverkeeper board will begin a search for a new riverkeeper in the coming weeks.

She and Len Hauss, president of the nonprofit’s board, said they would prefer to find someone who is familiar with the river, but they will be open to experienced and dedicated applicants from farther afield.

Holland’s departure will give the organization an opportunity to reflect on what it has accomplished and what it could do better, Sheppard said.

At various times, the group supported not only Holland but also an Ocmulgee riverkeeper and a coast keeper. But those positions were discontinued due to staffing and funding challenges.

Holland said he will probably stay involved with the group, but mostly he plans to relax and concentrate on his nature photography.

That hobby grew out of the need to take pictures for his job, but his skills have improved so much that galleries have exhibited shows of his work in recent years. He said a photo book may be in the works.

“We are indebted forever to James Holland for what he’s done,” Hauss said. “We’ll be looking for somebody to replace him that has the same love for the river and dedication that he had, and that’s going to be hard to find.”

To reach writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.