Dear BEN Readers:
On Friday, February 16th, Mary Burks, the mother of Alabama's environmental movement and founder of the Alabama Conservancy, passed away at 86 years of age.
My relationship with Mary and Bob Burks started nearly 18 years ago in September 1989, when I became Executive Director of the Alabama Conservancy. Despite it's small office space, Kaypro computer and very modest conference room, the Alabama Conservancy was the epicenter of Alabama's environmental movement in those days. The "environmental forum" a coalition of all the environmental groups met there, mainly because it was the only place to meet. Leaders of all the groups dropped by. It was the movement's clubhouse. And then there was Mary and Bob Burks.
They volunteered weekly, always focused on the task they were there for. Bob always smiled, talked a little, even debated a little, and then focused like a laser beam on the Conservancy's financial work. Then there was Mary. She always wanted to know how things were going. She tutored me about the Conservancy, it's history and it's future, it's people, the stories, the issues, the land and the organization's mission to care for Alabama's environment, protect it and preserve it. As head of membership at the time, Mary organized mailing parties, stuffing envelopes, placing address labels on the envelopes, and sealing them.
Here was the founder of the organization stuffing envelopes!
These were golden opportunities. As we sat in that conference room, Mary would talk about the Sipsey Wilderness, Blanche Dean or how the Conservancy started recycling in Birmingham. It was such a gift. And it was always neat to see Bob walk in after completing the financial/treasurer's work, to join in sealing the letters and then chiming in with his own stories. Their stories enriched and touched the lives of the volunteers, most of whom were students - the next generation.
A little over a year ago in Anniston, we were able to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Eastern Wilderness Act, the law that created the Sipsey Wilderness. It was a grand reunion organized by Pete Conroy and his group at Jacksonville State University. Mary and Bob were there, along with two former congressmen and John Randolph, a former Conservancy Executive Director and author of "The Battle for Alabama's Wilderness." I remember former Congressman Ronnie Flippo from Florence saying that one of his greatest accomplishments in Congress was the expansion of the Sipsey Wilderness.
The idea for Eastern Wilderness was founded in Alabama. In Randolph's book, the chapter titled "It's Impossible" details how a group of Alabamians embarked on a campaign to create the Sipsey Wilderness - an Eastern Wilderness - something the Forest Service said could never be done. Mary Burks organized a Wilderness Feasibility Study Committee, a group that contained true giants in their fields of study. People like Tom Imhof, author of Alabama Birds, Blanche Dean and Louise "Weesie" Smith, (botany), Charles Kelly (game wildlife), Mike Howell (ichthyology), Dan Holliman (nongame wildlife), Mike Hopiak and James Peavey (herpetology), Denny Bearce (Geology), Dale Carruthers (history), James and Fran Alexander (speleology) and James Manasco (trails). Along with the study group, a public campaign was launched through Birmingham Audubon's Walter Coxe. A film-The Bankhead Forest - An Alabama Adventure, was produced by photographers Perry Covington and Dennis Holt, and edited by Elberta Reid.
The wilderness campaign eventually secured the support of the entire Alabama congressional delegation. Commenting in Randolph's book years later, Mary stated about the grassroots wilderness movement, "We didn't have any idea what we were doing. We learned believe me. We learned the hard way."
After the six year Wilderness campaign (1969-1975), not only was the Sipsey Wilderness created but an entire Eastern Wilderness Area System was established. In Alabama, 32 years later, we now have 41,000 + acres of wilderness and hundreds of thousands of acres designated as wilderness in the East.
Mary's ongoing struggle to protect the designated wilderness was not the sum of her effort. She strived everyday to add or enhance the beauty of Alabama from wildflowers to our Natural Wonders.In her latter years, her knees prevented her to see and touch the beauty she loved so dearly, but it never diminished the strength of her conviction to protect and preserve it.
One final quote from Randolph's book best describes Mary. "If one believes in fate, then surely Mary Burks was fated to become the mother of Alabama wilderness preservation. Passionate, tough, and resilient, a lover of all things wild and natural..."
Somewhere out there Mary is looking down on all of us. There is so much more to be done. A new champion needs to step forward. Who will that be?
I know Mary is saying "Get Busy!"