5 key moments that shaped environmental history in Birmingham since the first Earth Day

Audubon
Volunteers at W.E. Putnam Middle School’s Audubon-Datnow Forest Preserve. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Happy Earth Day Birmingham! On this day, April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated not only here in the Magic City, but across the planet. 

A lot has happened over the past 51 years since the first Earth Day. Protecting Birmingham’s natural heritage and environment is a work in progress. We can all agree, there is always plenty of work to do.

With that said, we made a list of five key moments that shaped environmental history in Birmingham since the first Earth Day.

The Week Birmingham Couldn’t Breathe

Birmingham Alabama
“U.S. Steel plant. Red-orange is characteristic color of steel plant emission.” – June 1972 – photo via Bhamwiki by LeRoy Woodson for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Documerica” program

Before Birmingham was the Magic City, truckers driving through the city in the late 60s and early 70s called it “Smoke City.”  

Air pollution in the city got so bad, for one week, November 15-21, 1971, a local federal judge, at the behest of the Jefferson County Public Health Department, ordered 23 industries shuttered to protect public health. 

Recently passed amendments to the Clean Air Act, inspired by Earth Day and clean air advocates, allowed the judge to make this order. Birmingham was ground-zero for clean air, and what happened here would determine whether the Act would ever be enforced.

Read Bham Now’s “Smoke City” – Birmingham air pollution our past and future.

Ruffner Mountain Established

Ruffner Mountain in Birmingham. One-third of Ruffner is Forever Wild property. Photo courtesy of Ruffner Mountain.

In 1977,  residents from an East Birmingham neighborhood established a 24-acre forest they would call the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve. Today, 40+ years later, Ruffner Mountain is larger than New York City’s Central Park and is the “grandmother” of the land conservation movement in the Birmingham metro area.

Ruffner Birmingham Alabama
Ruffner Mountain donor wall painted in 2017. Photo via Pat Byington for Bham Now

Today, because of their early efforts, the Birmingham metro area is home to places like Red Mountain Park, Railroad Park, Turkey Creek Nature Preserve and the Freshwater Land Trust’s growing Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System.

The folks who founded and created Ruffner Mountain truly represent the best of Birmingham. They remind me of Margaret Mead’s most famous quote:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

President Bush Visits Birmingham-Southern

President George H.W. Bush at BSC
President George Bush shaking hands with BSC President Neal Berte in 1990, Photo courtesy of the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College

 Earth Day 1970 may have launched the environmental movement in the U.S., but Earth Day 1990 made it mainstream. The 20th Anniversary of Earth Day was a much bigger global event than the first. 

Two days before the big Earth Day celebration, Birmingham-Southern College welcomed President George H.W. Bush. During the visit, President Bush designated the Birmingham-Southern Conservancy, which is now the Southern Environmental Center, a  “Point of Light” Award.  He also signed a national proclamation declaring April Recycling Month. 

Later that year, President Bush signed into law a new and more aggressive Clean Air Act. The environmental movement in Birmingham also grew exponentially. 

Forever Wild Approved by Voters

Birmingham Alabama
Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now.

In 1992, a diverse group that included Vulcan Materials, executive and philanthropist Bill Ireland, all the Birmingham-based environmental groups, and the business community led a statewide campaign to pass the Forever Wild Constitutional Amendment

The amendment is one of the most successful conservation measures ever enacted in the state. To date, more than 300,000 acres of land have been protected throughout Alabama.

The establishment of the Forever Wild program soon ushered in a new dynamic era for land conservation. In the following years, from 1992-2001, Alabama created two new National Wildlife Refuges (Mountain Longleaf NWR and Cahaba NWR), the Dugger Mountain Wilderness Area and Little River Canyon National Preserve.

Locally, Forever Wild expanded Ruffner Mountain, saved Turkey Creek in Jefferson County and protected acres and acres of land along the Cahaba River. 

We’re Number #1 – Watershed Movement

Cahaba
Cahaba RIver Society’s Latonya Scott. Photo via Cahaba River Society

In 2013, Dr. Scot Duncan from Birmingham-Southern College penned the book Southern Wonder: Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity. Even though most conservationists knew for years Alabama ranked in the top five nationally when it came to biodiversity, Duncan’s book was a tipping point. In case you didn’t know, Alabama is ranked first in the country for the number of different kinds of freshwater fish, turtles, mussels, snails and crayfish (sorry Louisiana). 

fish biodiversity
Only found in the Birmingham metro area, Vermillion Darter – Photo from Pat O’Neil

Meanwhile, for the past two decades, river protection groups have grown substantially in Birmingham. Today, Birmingham’s rivers, streams and lakes have more allies than ever. It began with the Cahaba River Society in the late 80s and the Alabama Rivers Alliance founding in the 90s. Since the new century began, the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Cahaba Riverkeeper and Coosa Riverkeeper have championed the cause. 

The Future  

TNC Tree planting
Tree planting at East Lake Park on November 16, 2019. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Obviously, there are more than five key moments in Birmingham’s environmental history since 1970. Each year, Earth Day challenges all of us to do our part – advocate for clean air and water, reduce waste, save energy, build a trail, plant a tree, pick up litter and preserve a special place—a forest or stream. 

This Earth Day, have you chosen your moment?


  • 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.