Mary Ivy Burks (1920-2007)


Mary Louise Ivy was born to Earl Moore Ivy and Lorene Fletcher Ivy, in Birmingham, Alabama on December 11, 1920. She graduated from Ramsey High School in 1937 and from Birmingham-Southern College in 1941.  Both are located in Birmingham, Alabama.

During the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Burks and her husband, Bob Burks, were active in many community organizations, including the Birmingham Audubon Society (BAS). Through her work with the BAS she met Blanche Evans Dean, an environmental activist and lover of nature. They spent much time exploring the Bankhead National Forest, among other wild places. As a result Blanche Dean’s mentoring, Burks developed a love for these wilderness areas as well as for the trees and wild flowers found there and across Alabama.

In the late 1960’s Burks and others in the BAS began discussing the need for a non-governmental group to help develop environmental policies for the state. In 1967 they organized the Alabama Environmental Council, now known as the Alabama Conservancy. Burks was the organization’s first president. Some of their first projects involved tackling air and water pollution problems. At the time the AEC was founded, Birmingham’s particulate matter air pollution was second in the nation and fish kills were a common occurrence.

The then new Alabama Environmental Council began focusing on the areas around the West Fork Sipsey River in the Bankhead National Forest. About that time the U.S. Forest Service was directed to authorize the use of clearcutting mature trees in that area. This threat to destroy some of the last remaining publicly owned wilderness attracted the attention of many environmental and nature activists.

By the early 1970’s the Alabama Environmental Council could afford an Executive Director, and Burks was selected for that position. She began advocating the inclusion of the West Fork Sipsey River’s watershed in the National Wilderness Preservation System. By building public support for this project, she convinced Alabama two senators, John Sparkman and James Allen, to sponsor legislation establishing a Sipsey wilderness area. Burks found herself at the front of a national grass-roots effort known as the eastern wilderness movement.

Over much opposition from the timber industry, the U.S. Forest Service, and their friends in Congress, and after 13 attempts to pass the proposed legislation, Congress finally passed the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act of 1975. This Act designated 12,700 acres along the West Fork Sipsey River as Alabama’s first national wilderness area. Later, in 1988, through efforts Burks initiated, the West Fork Sipsey River and its upper tributaries were designated as Alabama’s only national wild and scenic river.

Mary Louise Ivy Burks received many awards for her tireless efforts. Probably the most fitting was the award from the Campaign for America’s Wilderness that designated her a “Wilderness Hero.”


Past Inductees
Alabama Women's Hall of Fame
Judson College

© 2005 Alabama Women's Hall of Fame