To understand the motivation behind the launch of the new Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, you also must understand the kind of passion fueling the work of conservationists like Wendy Jackson, Executive Director of the non-profit group, Freshwater Land Trust. Jackson, whose efforts have helped to protect more than 10,000 acres of land in north-central Alabama, is one of the key players involved with the implementation of Jefferson county’s unique trail system.
The long anticipated project will include 750 miles of combined greenways, waterways and trails (many of which will be extensions of trails already in existence), and will span throughout 29 surrounding cities. Jackson proposes the plan will take several decades to complete, and will focus around six major trails; Cahaba River, Five Mile Creek, Jones Valley, Shades Creek, Village Creek, and Turkey Creek. While there are many other similar trail systems located throughout the country, Jackson explains that the Red Rock trail system is truly one of a kind, not only in the way that it’s comprised, but for the vast areas of impact it aims to provide for our region.
“What makes Jefferson County’s (trail system) unique is the combination of the watersheds that helped build this region, the industrial heritage that we have preserved and our city’s Civil Rights history. The Red Rock also serves as a national model for the partnership between health groups and conservation groups partnering to create this greenway master plan.”
The greenway master plan was initially developed in 2010 when the Freshwater Land Trust (working under the Jefferson County Department of Health and the Health Action Partnership) received funding from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The funds came through a grant called “Communities Putting Prevention to Work,” which aims to create more feasible methods to promote “active and healthy living, use of alternate modes of transportation, and protect regional waterways.”
Jackson has a deep rooted appreciation for all of these goals, but is especially inspired by a passion for preserving access to outdoors and nature-something she knows is not easily available to everyone. “Growing up on our family farm where I was able to roam the woods and play in the creeks instilled in me a great love of the outdoors. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how fortunate I was to have easy access to nature and how few people can share in that experience.” She describes a personal sadness that stems from the lack of conservation for places that once truly mattered to her and others. “If we work as a community and as a region to protect these places, they will withstand the test of time and be available for future generations. There is a Native Proverb on the wall in my office that says, ‘We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’”
So far, there’s no question about the overwhelming amount of support favoring the Red Rock trail system. In fact, during the proposal process, the team visited more than 30 different communities and heard from over 3,000 individuals-many of whom offered input about where they want to be able to walk or bike within their community. Yet despite such positive response, Jackson is realistic about the need to maintain that optimism and involvement-from both community members and leaders. To help, the trail system has been added to the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham‘s Long Range Transportation Improvement Plan, which not only adds the benefit of major backing, but also makes the Red Rock trail system eligible for federal matching funds. Ultimately the success of the plan however, lies largely with the extent of involvement from individual cities, as well as the level of community support regarding which projects should be included, and how much they are desired.
“We need these people to continue to be champions for this cause in their communities,” said Jackson. “There are countless benefits of the Red Rock Trail System but the main ones are healthy lifestyles, economic development, environmental benefits, quality of life and community revitalization. We hope that people will find which of these is most important to them and support the Red Rock in their community.”
Recently, Jackson was honored with an invitation from Yale University to speak to other leading conservationists from throughout the United States. While there, she says it quickly became apparent to her just how far ahead our region truly is in terms of conservation work. “I was proud to be from Birmingham and see that what we are doing is cutting edge compared to what other cities and regions are doing.” Overall, Jackson says she walked away from the experience with much encouragement, yet, she admits that what inspired her most was to see “how impressed” the other conservationists were with the extent of work that our region has accomplished.
At the Freshwater Land Trust, the conservation work Jackson and her peers strive toward and achieve is fueled by a simple, yet poignant motto: “preserve the places that matter.” Yet, as much effort as the well known non-profit puts forth into doing just that, Jackson explains that it really comes down to people understanding that their future is really in their hands-that their involvement and support in preserving the places that matter, is equally as important.
“Throughout my time at the Freshwater Land Trust, I have seen firsthand that the power of one individual can really make a difference. And it’s not just the philanthropists. I encourage everyone to become a champion in their community, in their watershed or for their greenway,” says Jackson. “Get active and get involved. The power of one is real.”