Pull privet, save Planet Earth.
About six years ago, late in the Fall, my daughter and a friend of hers spent a day with volunteers, pulling Chinese privet growing deep in the Bankhead National Forest’s Sipsey Wilderness. Deemed “one of the worst invasive plants in the South” by the USDA, privet, a fast growing shrub, can dominate the forest understory, strangling all other plants in its path.
Our reward for that back breaking day of work in the forest?
Months later in the Spring, we returned to the same place, and instead of seeing privet snuff out everything in sight —we were welcomed by glorious ribbons of bursting wildflowers.
My daughter, who was 11 years old at the time, said she could hear the flowers and trees saying thank you.
The Series – Ways to Save the Earth in Alabama
In our previous two installments on ways to save the Earth here in Alabama, we looked at planting trees, growing native plants, organizing litter cleanups, becoming a water watcher, building trails and adopting parks. In this, our final edition, we explore specific ways to “plug in” and make a difference including;
- Wild Alabama’s Helping Hands and Forest Ambassador Programs
- Alabama Audubon’s Chimney Swift Program
- Composting and waste reduction initiatives
Connecting People to the Forests
Maggie Johnston, Wild Alabama’s Executive Director and one of the state’s most inspirational environmental educators, describes why getting out in the forest can be life-changing.
“Most people take things for granted until they experience them,” she told me. “The first time a child or adult stands in a stream and the waters are running over their feet, and they look down and see that crayfish and then get up the nerve to pick it up and look at it… it’s life changing.”
Johnston and her staff at Wild Alabama (formerly Wild South) are in the business of inspiring people to enjoy, value and protect Alabama’s wild places. That’s why they lead nature hikes and organize forest and trail stewardship projects throughout Alabama’s National Forest System. They connect people to the forest and the natural world.
“It’s a process,” Johnston added. “You can’t expect someone to even want to protect and take care of it if they don’t understand their connection, their personal connection to that world. And I believe the way to do that is to get people out. We’ve been at it for a long time,” she chuckled.
One way you can connect this Fall is by volunteering and supporting the Wild Alabama’s Helping Hands Program.
This statewide program carries out stewardship projects throughout our National Forests.
These special places include:
- Three designated wilderness areas in the state — the Sipsey, Cheaha and Duggar
- Pinhoti Trail – 138 miles within the Talladega National Forest
- Bankhead and Talladega National Forests
Helping Hands does boots on the ground work that matters, such as pulling up privet in the Fall and Winter, maintaining trails and removing trash.
“A lot of people who enjoy hiking and nature want to give back,” said Johnston. “This (Helping Hands) allows them a way to give back to that place that’s so special to them.”
According to Johnston, since COVID, Wild Alabama has seen a 50% increase in visitor traffic at places like the Sipsey Wilderness and throughout the National Forests.
“People are realizing they need that connection to nature,” she said.
To address the influx, Wild Alabama also has started a new program called Forest Ambassadors, which has volunteers who are knowledgeable about the trails and National Forests. They will be stationed at the trailheads.
Hikers often come woefully unprepared for their trek. For example, the Ambassadors hand out “paper maps” because visitors try to use their phones to access map info. Unfortunately, many times there is no reception deep in the forest and people’s batteries die. Paper maps help prevent hikers from getting lost.
Along with keeping people safe, the Forest Ambassadors provide helpful “Leave No Trace” tips and ways to tread lightly, protecting the forest.
Looking to connect with nature and give back? Check out Wild Alabama on social and their website for volunteer activities, hikes and stewardship opportunities.
First, info about this special bird.
A common sight in the skies of Alabama from March to October, these sooty, gray birds often get confused for bats and are described as a “flying cigar with wings” according to Alabama Audubon. The birds breed in chimneys, one pair per stack, and then gather in large roosting flocks known as “swiftnados” during their fall migration.
When not on their nests or roosting at night, swifts spend literally all their time flying—they can’t perch on branches or on the ground like other birds, and instead have specially adapted feet for clinging to vertical surfaces like the insides of chimneys.
Other than their cool lifestyle, need another reason to like them? Chimney swifts can eat up to 12,000 bugs a day including mosquitoes!
Historically, chimney swifts would have nested and roosted inside hollow trees or in caves, but as a wave of European settlement removed much of Alabama’s old-growth forests during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, swifts adapted to newly constructed chimneys as a place to raise their young.
Unfortunately, chimneys are becoming rarer in Birmingham. Just this year, Birmingham lost two large roosts because of the recent demolition of Gibson Elementary School in Woodlawn and Bluff Park Elementary School in Hoover. Combined, both chimneys hosted about 3000 swifts.
“This time of year, you can see huge roosting flocks of swifts form what we call a ‘swiftnado’ as hundreds or even thousands pour into a chimney at sunset,” said Outreach & Communications Director Sarah Randolph. “It’s hard to think that there may be a future where we can’t see this magical spectacle anymore if we keep losing these large chimneys at this rate.” If you hear about a large chimney that is going to be demolished, please notify Alabama Audubon.
To address this issue, Alabama Audubon is encouraging the construction of artificial chimney swift nesting towers in Birmingham and throughout Alabama. There are currently 20 towers across the state of Alabama, including ones at:
- Birmingham Botanical Gardens
- Oak Mountain State Park
- Jones Valley Teaching Farm in Downtown Birmingham
If you want to build your own personal tower, Audubon recommends the book Chimney Swift Towers: New Habitat for America’s Mysterious Birds by Georgean Z. Kyle and Paul D. Kyle.
Educators and educational nonprofits can also apply for Alabama Audubon’s Education MiniGrants through October 30th to fund things such as swift towers.
Contact Alabama Audubon at email@example.com for additional info about building a tower.
How about other nests? There are many other bird species for which you can build bird houses, such as bluebirds and even owls. You can find instructions on how and where to build bird boxes at nestwatch.org.
Reduce Waste & Compost
Matt Nesbitt is a waste reduction superhero.
“Somewhere around 30% of the things that get sent to landfills are organic materials—materials that honestly have no business in landfills.” Nesbitt declared with a hint of exasperation. “There are better uses for that material and composting is a great way to do it.”
Founder of a new local startup called Field Culture Compost, Nesbitt’s company recently won EDPA’s Alabama Launchpad pitch competition.
Here is how his company works.
“Basically what we do is take food waste and other organic wastes, and do our best to divert it away from landfills. We use that material to create a nutrient rich soil called compost. We then sell the compost to anyone who wants it. Landscapers, home gardeners and farmers.”
The company picks up people’s organic material residentially and commercially in the Birmingham metro area.
Besides composting, Nesbitt provided us tips on how to reduce waste everywhere.
- Avoid single-use packaging
- Bring your own bags to grocery stores
- Look for packaging that uses recycled materials
- Seek Biodegradable Products Institute – certified compostable packaging
- Support the new Alabama Environmental Council EAT Campaign – which identifies restaurants that are eco-friendly (AEC is seeking nominations!)
Make a Difference This Fall
Alabama’s environment needs champions. Whether it’s planting a tree, becoming a water watcher or building a chimney swift nesting tower—make a difference this Fall.
Visit the rest of the series.