Most days, Burdette kayaks the Fear or its tributaries, taking water samples. Other days, he’s navigating waves of coal ash as they flood into the river, or he’s in a small airplane, flying above farms to look for improper waste disposal.
In the last decade, Burdette has helped remove coal ash ponds from public lands, forced DuPont to stop dumping chemicals, and worked tirelessly to reduce the impact of the swine and poultry industry that operates largely unchecked on the river’s banks—a job with no finish line in sight. “I love it here,” says Burdette, “but this river needs help.” — Graham Averill
The Ice Man: Will Gadd
Will Gadd has scored plenty of personal bests in myriad adventure pursuits—first descents as a pro kayaker, two world records as a pro paraglider, three X Games golds and the first ascent of a frozen Niagara Falls as an ice climber.
Recently, though, Gadd has applied his prodigious skills to the greater good for public lands, working with scientists studying the impact of climate change. He has helped researchers explore caves beneath Canada’s Athabasca Glacier, an endeavor that discovered a new life-form (a biofilm on the cave walls). And he has climbed below the Greenland Ice Sheet with scientists to learn how ice melt might impact sea levels.
“As an athlete, a lot of what we do isn’t useful,” says 53-year-old Gadd. “I feel like I can be genuinely useful to these scientists in these harsh environments, helping them move around and conduct research.”