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Alabama Environmental Council

Mary Yahn, Auburn University
Sipsey Wilderness Area Stream
The Alabama Environmental Council (AEC) is a nonprofit organization founded as the Alabama Conservancy in 1967 in Birmingham, Jefferson County, as the state's first organized environmental organization. Mary Ivy Burks and a group of conservationists from the Birmingham Audubon Society (BAS) led the effort to establish the organization. Since its founding, the organization has been dedicated to protecting Alabama's diverse ecosystems through promoting and lobbying for legislative efforts to reduce pollution and promote education programs on such subjects as the importance of recycling.
AEC began with an informal meeting between Burks and Bob Hanie, the southeastern representative of the Nature Conservancy, now a world-renowned conservation and advocacy group. Burks and noted conservationist and author Blanche Evans Dean and others gave Hanie a tour of the Dismals Canyon area near Phil Campbell, Franklin County.
Blanche Evans Dean
The two friends were attempting to raise awareness on the need for the site to be placed under federal or state protection to prevent further development and even hoped that the Nature Conservancy would purchase the tract. Although Dismals Canyon was never placed under protection (it is privately owned and operates as a commercial venture), the meeting was followed by another in which 10 members of the BAS discussed creating a formal environmental advocacy organization in Alabama. They envisioned an environmental group dedicated to preserving unique sites within the state that were threatened by development. Interest in the new environmental group increased, and 35 individuals became the initial founding members of the Alabama Conservancy; it became the AEC in 1995 to avoid confusion with the national Nature Conservancy. During this meeting in Birmingham, the new members wrote a constitution and bylaws and elected Mary Ivey Burks as the first president. Early in its history, membership consisted of individuals and groups, including the Birmingham Audubon Society, the Garden Club of Alabama, and the Alabama Clean Air Committee.
Bankhead National Forest
One of the earliest official efforts of the AEC involved promoting legislation to preserve historic trails and endangered ecosystems within the state. The first proposed project was a hiking trail shadowing the route taken by naturalist William Bartram through much of south Alabama in 1775. The effort resulted in the establishment of the much more expansive Bartram Trail Conference in 1976 as part of the nation's Bicentennial celebration. Another notable project of the AEC was the attempt to have the Cahaba River designated by the federal government as a "wild and scenic river." Though the Cahaba River project failed, the environmental movement gained momentum through publicizing the plight of the river. The group did achieve success in January 1975 with its multi-year effort to establish the Sipsey Wilderness inside the William B. Bankhead National Forest that was prompted by passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and subsequent establishment of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The congressional legislation set aside 12,726 acres of the Sipsey River watershed and created the first federally designated wilderness area in Alabama and the first located east of the Mississippi River. The tract was later expanded to include 24,922 acres surrounding the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River in Lawrence and Winston Counties. The Sipsey Wilderness area is well known for its old-growth hardwood forest and numerous waterfalls and represented a major achievement of the AEC.
Jefferson County Strip Mine
Another early AEC effort involved improving the air quality in Birmingham. Through educating citizens and legislators, the council helped establish a set of guidelines for air quality control bills in May 1971 that aided passage of the Modified Unified Air Pollution Bill that August. The legislation also established the Air Pollution Control Commission (APCC) that released emission data from industrial sites to the public. The combination of the guidelines and creation of the APCC increased awareness on the effects of air pollution, identified polluting industries, and helped improve the air quality in Birmingham. The following year the AEC helped secure passage of the Water Pollution Control Acts. It later supported federal legislation to regulate strip mining that was enacted in 1977 and similar legislation in Alabama in 1983.
Recycling has been a significant part of AEC's programming since the organization's creation and remains a major focus. In 1973, a non-profit recycling center was opened in Birmingham on the campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The AEC Recycling Center would operate at three different locations. The AEC Recycling Center accepted paper, glass, metal, plastic, and Christmas trees up until 2018 when it was closed owing to falling prices for recyclable materials. AEC also developed numerous other pilot programs to implement and establish curbside recycling that made the process of recycling easier for consumers.
The Alabama Environmental Council continues to fulfill its mission to "preserve protect and promote a healthy Alabama for a sustainable future" largely through educating the public on the importance of recycling as well as the need to preserve endangered and threatened habitat areas. The nonprofit organization is headquartered in Birmingham and is run by a small staff overseen by a board of directors.

Additional Resources

Hayman, Clara Ruth. Protecting Alabama: A History of the Alabama Environmental Council. Birmingham. Ala.: The Environmental Council, 1997.
Published:  April 20, 2021   |   Last updated:  April 20, 2021