Mary Ivy Burks (1920-2007) was a leading force behind the founding of the Alabama Conservancy (now the Alabama Environmental Council), the state's first independent environmental organization. She served as its first president, its first executive director, and chair of its wilderness committee, overseeing the group's successfully campaign for the creation of the Sipsey Wilderness Area the William B. Bankhead National Forest. She helped lead a national effort known as the eastern wilderness movement, and became a respected expert on land preservation and forestry issues.
She was born Mary Louise Ivy in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on December 11, 1920, one of two children of Earl Moore Ivy and Lorene Fletcher Ivy. She graduated in 1942 from Birmingham-Southern College with a degree in English and became a reporter for the Birmingham Post newspaper, where she improved her considerable communications skills. In 1946, she married Robert E. Burks Jr., an organic chemist with the Southern Research Institute, and the couple settled in Birmingham.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Burks turned her attention to raising the couple's son, Robert Ivy ("Robin") Burks, and to volunteering in the community, where her public-relations talents benefited such organizations as the Community Chest (a forerunner of the United Way) and the Birmingham Audubon Society (BAS). Through her work with the society, Burks met highly respected author, teacher, and self-trained botanist Blanche Evans Dean, also an activist in the Birmingham area. Burks was entranced by Dean's love of nature, and the two spent hours exploring the wild places of the Bankhead National Forest. Its rock-walled canyons along the West Fork of the Sipsey Fork River, a tributary of the Black Warrior River, are home to a wealth of waterfalls and some of the South's most unique communities of plant and animal life.
In the late 1960s, Burks, Dean, and other members of the BAS's conservation committee became convinced that Alabama needed a non-governmental entity that could help guide the state's environmental policies. In 1967, they organized the Alabama Conservancy, with Burks serving as its first president. The new group formally incorporated in 1969 and immediately tackled several difficult environmental issues, notably air and water pollution control. The preservation of the wilderness flanking the West Fork Sipsey River in Bankhead National Forest became the defining focus of the Alabama Conservancy, however.
That attention was urgently needed. Unlike national parks, national forests are by law open to commercial timbering. Historically, most logging followed the selective-cutting method, by which individual mature trees were removed only periodically. As a result, many areas had experienced no significant logging for decades, and thus sections of national forests in many areas of the nation had recovered enough to be considered "de facto" wilderness, in which past human activity had become generally unnoticeable. The unique watershed of the West Fork Sipsey River was such a place. In 1964, however, at the urging of the nation's timber industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to increase dramatically the level of commercial timber production permitted in the national forests. To meet production goals, it directed the U.S. Forest Service, a sub-agency, to authorize the use of clearcutting, which entailed the removal of all trees in areas selected for logging. Nature enthusiasts and activists around the country soon found that some of the last remaining publicly owned wilderness areas were threatened with destruction. In the Bankhead, large tracts of native hardwood forest were being cut down and replaced with commercial pine.
Burks met the challenge with passion and direct action. By the 1970s, the Alabama Conservancy had grown to the point that it could afford to staff a modest office, and Burks was selected as the group's first executive director. At her urging, the organization adopted the goal of preserving the West Fork Sipsey River's watershed from clearcutting and worked to include it in the National Wilderness Preservation System, established by an act of Congress in 1964. The board of directors named Burks chair of its effort, and in 1971, her efforts to raise broad-based public support led Alabama's two U.S. senators, John J. Sparkman and James B. Allen, to sponsor legislation proposing a Sipsey wilderness area encompassing some 12,000 acres. This legislation encouraged like-minded citizens throughout the eastern United States, and soon West Virginia and Georgia had similar bills pending in Congress. Burks and the Alabama Conservancy found themselves at the forefront of a new national grass-roots effort that became known as the eastern wilderness movement.
During the next four years, Burks was immersed in numerous conservation efforts. The U.S. Forest Service opposed the Sipsey and other eastern proposals, fearing that if previously logged areas in the eastern United States were designated as wilderness, it might spark similar preservation campaigns for the vast western national forests that the Forest Service wanted to log. The agency enlisted allies in Congress to introduce competing legislation with lower standards of protection, thus sparking power struggles in congressional committees and setting state against state and region against region.
Burks relentlessly lobbied members of Congress on important committees and became such an expert on forestry practices that her advice was sought by both government and industry. Finally, after 13 different attempts at legislation, Congress passed the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act of 1975, designating 12,700 acres along the West Fork Sipsey River as Alabama's first national wilderness area. This legislation made the wilderness system a truly national one for the first time. One other project Burks initiated in the 1970s bore fruit in 1988, when as a part of legislation enlarging the Sipsey wilderness to some 25,000 acres, the West Fork Sipsey River and its upper tributaries were designated as Alabama's only national wild and scenic river.
Burks retired from the Alabama Conservancy in 1977 but continued to volunteer her time and experience to conservation causes
until her death on February 16, 2007. Burks was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 2010.
Hayman, Clara Ruth. Protecting Alabama: A History of the Alabama Environmental Council. Birmingham: Alabama Environmental Council, 1997.
Randolph, John. The Battle for Alabama's Wilderness: Saving the Great Gymnasiums of Nature. Tuscaloosa: Fire Ant Books, 2005.
Roth, Dennis M. The Wilderness Movement and the National Forests. 1984. Reprint, College Station, Tex.: Intaglio Press, 1995.
Scott, Douglas W. The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our Natural Heritage Through the Wilderness Act. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing, 2004.
John N. Randolph
Published March 20, 2007
Last updated February 21, 2011