Can you name Alabama’s 10 Natural Wonders? See how a movement was born

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Birmingham
Fall at Little River Canyon, photo by Pat Byington, Bham Now

If you live in the Birmingham Metro area, I bet you have seen a number of pictures in your Facebook feed this month of the Cahaba Lilies.

Cahaba lilies at Cahaba River Park in Shelby County. Photo by Jim Schmalz for Bham Now

And who hasn’t seen the rushing waters of Little River Canyon’s Little River Falls.

Birmingham
Little River Canyon Falls – photo by Pat Byington, Bham Now

But I bet you haven’t ever seen a photo of the Sipsey River Swamp, located west of Tuscaloosa.

Sipsey River Swamp. Photo by Ken Wills

And how about Kinlock Falls, just one of the 1000 waterfalls in the Bankhead National Forest.

Photo of Kinlock Falls in the Bankhead National Forest. Photo by Ken Wills

All of these special places have one thing in common.  

They were all Alabama’s first Natural Wonders.

Back in the mid-1990s, a group of conservationists, scientists and local leaders from several nonprofits and businesses launched Alabama’s  Natural Wonders Campaign. (I got to be part of that team). 

How and why did they launch such a campaign? What did they accomplish? And in 2020, are there other Natural Wonders that should join the original list?

In this three-part series we will answer these questions and more.

Join us! 

How It All Began

Natural Wonders brochure map

The Alabama Natural Wonders Campaign was the brainchild of the Alabama Environmental Council (AEC), the state’s oldest environmental organization based in Birmingham. 

The idea was simple. 

Working closely with natural resource scientists, the AEC designated ten natural wonders across the state. They purposefully chose geographically diverse locations to represent a range of Alabama’s natural beauty. 

The Alabama Natural Wonders list released in 1996? Drumroll please….

The person in charge of compiling the Alabama Natural Wonders list was the AEC’s Natural Resource Planner Ken Wills.

Fun fact: Years later, after he left the organization, Wills would co-author with Samford professor Larry Davenport the highly acclaimed book Exploring Wild Alabama: A Guide to the State’s Publicly Accessible Natural Areas.  Much of the data and research for his book came from his initial work on the Natural Wonders Campaign.

Developing Natural Wonders Champions

Yes—that’s me at a sign dedication in Bibb County with former state Senator Bill Armistead. This is a 1997 newspaper clip in the Centerville Press

Once the list was announced, the AEC developed educational materials and built community support around each Natural Wonder. At some locations, they even erected signs commemorating the designation. 

Danielle Dunbar was the AEC’s Natural Wonders Coordinator at the time. She developed the initiative and found people and organizations to champion these special places in their community. 

Newspaper clip of Danielle Dunbar in the Selma Journal in 1997.

In a recent interview with Bham Now, Dunbar pulled out a scrapbook filled with brochures and news clippings from the campaign.  

“I’m gonna start by reading this mission statement. It’s pretty good,” she said. 

The mission of the campaign is to designate public lands and waterways of uncommon beauty and diversity as Alabama natural wonders to give the citizens and communities of our state opportunities to understand and experience our natural heritage and to improve the quality of Alabama’s extraordinary natural areas.

“The campaign provided such great opportunities for education and community organizing,” added Dunbar. We gave people a way to feel ownership of their public areas and to know what special environmental treasures they have in their backyard.”

Huge Success

Monte Sano declared Natural Wonder. Birmingham News Newspaper clip with photo off Danielle Dunbar

The response to the campaign was overwhelmingly positive, especially in Huntsville where Monte Sano resides, and in communities alongside the Cahaba River,  according to Dunbar.  

In the Rocket City,  Mayor Loretta Spencer, the Land Trust for North Alabama, Burritt Museum, Alabama State Parks, the local Sierra Club Chapter and community leaders took part in a  July 1997 Natural Wonders dedication at the entrance of Monte Sano State Park.  

Not to be outdone, the Cahaba River designation as a Natural Wonder was celebrated in Bibb County and near Old Cahaba.  Groups ranging from the Cahaba River Society to the Bibb County Commission and the Old Cahawba Archeological Park participated in events and teamed up.

The campaign was promoted as ecotourism before ecotourism was considered ‘cool’.  It even got the seal of approval from the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel.

Set the Stage

View from on top of Monte Sano Mountain. Photo from Ken Wills

Conservation-wise, at some sites, the Alabama Natural Wonders Campaign set the stage for preservation, recreation and land stewardship efforts for a generation. For example, since 1997, both Monte State Park and the Monte Sano Nature Preserve have added hundreds of acres, in most cases protecting the natural areas from urban sprawl. 

Marie Bostick, Executive Director of the Land Trust of North Alabama, concurred: “Designating Monte Sano as one of our state’s natural wonders helped raise awareness locally of the importance of having access to nature so close to our downtown area leading to greater support for the expansion of those preserved lands.” 

Partnerships Work

Mobile Tensaw Delta. Photo by Ken Wills

Dunbar, who is currently the Director of Financial and Environmental Stewardship for the Episcopal churches of Alabama summed up her experience with the Alabama Natural Wonders Campaign:

“Building partnerships, and a network, and a community that are all working together for a common cause–there’s just nothing better than that. For us it was about helping to protect and preserve the environment. I think that is really the key to making some positive social change in the world. I also think good old-fashioned education makes people aware of what is around them.”

Next Up

In our next story we examine what has happened to Alabama’s Natural Wonders over the last two decades. Our findings will surprise you.

Have you been to any of these sites?  Which others would you add to the list?  We’d love to hear from you.

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  • 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.