From dumps to natural wonders. See how two communities brought back nature in Birmingham and Jefferson County

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Tire cleanup at Red Mountain Park. The park removed more than 4000 tons of garbage from illegal dumps in 2017. Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Park

Paradise lost. That is how a long time resident once described Pinson, Alabama’s Turkey Creek Falls, in the 1990s, because of the garbage and trash that littered the streamsides, forests and majestic falls. A beloved natural wonder in Jefferson County, this special place, that use to be a playground for residents throughout the region, was surrounded by dumps, and had become a magnet for drugs, crime and a proposed jail.

Birmingham Alabama
Turkey Creek – photo by Pat Byington, Bham Now

The local residents fought the jail, and won. In the midst of removing the trash, getting their elbows deep in the muck, they re-discovered nature, the creek, the falls and the land.

Trash is not Alabama’s destiny

In the 1970s there was an iconic public service television ad by Keep America Beautiful of a Native American shedding a tear after coming upon a littered landscape and trash being thrown out of cars. Many Alabamians feel a similar sadness, when they see our roadsides and waterways sullied with garbage.

Dumps and trash spewed across the Alabama landscape do not have to be our future or destiny. In fact, despite a history of abuse, over the past 20 years, the state has enacted laws to fund the cleanup of scrap tires and illegal dumps.

2000 acres and 250,000 visitors a year

Over the past 20 years, two communities in Birmingham have turned dumps into natural wonders. Not only have these two special places, Turkey Creek Nature Preserve and Red Mountain Park, been restored back to their natural beauty, they have preserved over 2000 acres that attract annually more than 250,000 visitors.

Here are their stories.

Turkey Creek. No to a jail. Yes to a nature preserve

In the mid-90s, the jail in downtown Birmingham was overcrowded. In response, to the growing prison population, the Jefferson County Commission proposed to locate a new jail on 200 acres where Turkey Creek Nature Preserve resides today.

It was not a small project. The new jail was going to house up to 900 minimum and moderate security prisoners at a cost of $50 million. The plan was of course opposed by residents of Pinson, but it also spawned a grassroots organization, S.T.A.R.T. (Society To Advance the Resources at Turkey Creek), that grew beyond the local community to encompass 7,000 members county and region-wide.

According to Vern Pitts, a founding member and President of S.T.A.R.T., it took three years to defeat the jail proposal. During that time, the land was held privately. A turning point came when the landowner allowed the members of S.T.A.R.T. to hold cleanups in the area. On two consecutive Saturdays up to 50 volunteers hauled 112 tons of garbage from the area.

Turkey Creek
Turkey Creek Nature Preserve cleanup in 1998. Photo courtesy of Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

“The hard work and dedication of community volunteers within the S.T.A.R.T. group is one of the great untold triumphs of grassroots organization,” stated Charles Yeager, manager of the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve. “Less than 20 years ago, the site that is now the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, was a very dangerous and damaged site, but the members of S.T.A.R.T. knew that underneath all of that trash and graffiti was a place of incredible beauty. Today, over 130,000 people annually have the opportunity to safely enjoy the beauty of Turkey Creek as a result of their hard work. Many of the visitors that enjoy it will never truly understand how far it has come and all that has been, and still is, sacrificed to keep it clean, safe, and beautiful.”

Birmingham Alabama
Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now.

After the jail proposal was defeated, the Freshwater Land Trust was able to purchase the land, and sell a portion of the preserve to the state of Alabama’s Forever Wild Program. Today, Birmingham- Southern College Southern Environmental Center and Freshwater Land Trust jointly manage the popular preserve and conduct educational programs. Home to the Vermilion darter one of the rarest fish in the world, the site is supported locally by Friends of Turkey Creek Nature Preserve.

Birmingham Alabama
Vermilion darter found in Jefferson County’s Turkey Creek was protected by Freshwater Land Trust efforts

“I believe that if you were to ask those S.T.A.R.T. members, they would all agree that it was well worth it to provide a cherished place, where kids of all ages can explore and enjoy the beauty of our natural world,” added Yeager.

Red Mountain Park – from Birmingham’s center of iron ore production to a nature destination

The history of the land around Red Mountain Park is older than the city of Birmingham.

Red Mountain Park historic hoist house. Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Park

In the 1840s a pioneer by the name of Baylis Earle Grace is recognized as the first person in the area to identify the red rock on Red Mountain as hematite. He began to strip the ore from his land and send it to a forge in nearby Bibb County to be smelted for use by local blacksmiths.

Two decades later, during the Civil War and the following 100 years, Red Mountain was mined industrially. It was the center of iron ore production in the U.S. By the 1960s US Steel closed the mines at Red Mountain, leaving the land completely untouched and unmonitored for decades. As a result, the land became a prime target for illegal garbage dumping.

Dormant for nearly five decades, in 2007, through the efforts of the Freshwater Land Trust and countless volunteers, U.S. Steel made one of the largest corporate land donations in the nation’s history, selling more than 1,200 acres at a discounted price to the Red Mountain Park and Recreational Area Commission. That one action, created a park larger than New York’s Central Park.

4,197 tons of trash

For the past decade, Red Mountain Park has become a recreational destination. Fifteen miles of hiking trails were developed. A nationally renowned dog park (Remy’s Dog Park) was created and several activities from ziplines to an obstacle course were established.

park. Birmingham.
Dogs love parks too. Photo from Red Mountain Park facebook

“So many people have woven the fabric of their lives into these spaces,” said Katie Bradford, Director of Community & Public Relations at Red Mountain Park. “Thousands of people have biked and hiked this mountain, and thousands more have experienced one of our zipline or team building adventures. We have been a place for hundreds who needed more accessibility offerings so that they too can experience the natural world.”

Meanwhile, coinciding with the founding of the Park, in the late 2000s, the Alabama legislature passed a law creating a fund to remediate and clean up scrap tires and illegal dumps. Since 2017, the Park, in partnership with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) has removed 20,900 tires, and 4,197 tons of trash from the park.

Volunteers tackling the illegal dumps at Red Mountain Park. Photo by Red Mountain Park

Today, Red Mountain Park totals 1,500 acres. It is a lush green oasis, within the metro Birmingham. It has gone from land that has been dumped on, mined and dynamited for generations to becoming a natural wonder.

Making Alabama the Beautiful

How do we make “Alabama the Beautiful?”

Both Red Mountain and Turkey Creek Nature Preserve would not have been restored back to their natural beauty, if people had not cared, stepped up and volunteered. That’s how other green spaces around the Magic City have been preserved, including places like Ruffner Mountain and Railroad Park.

Red Mountain Park
T.C. McLemore (center) will be walking 30 miles on Labor Day to mark his birthday. Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Park

Steve Jones, Chair of the Red Mountain Park Commission sums up the benefits.

“When you step back and take a look at the entire picture, you realize that these projects have preserved over 2,000 acres of green space in Jefferson County, and in the process have protected the wildlife and natural resources found there. Not only that, but they provide natural retreats that citizens are taking advantage of; Turkey Creek and Red Mountain Park each welcome well over 120,000 visitors each year.”

In our third and final installment, about Alabama the Beautiful, we are going to show you what groups are combating dumps/littering and how you can help clean up the state of Alabama.

Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.