Mary Burks

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Mary Burks

Mary Louise Ivy Burks (born December 11, 1920 in Birmingham; died February 16, 2007 in Birmingham) was the founder and first director of the Alabama Environmental Council and a leader of the "Eastern Wilderness Movement" that won protection for the Sipsey Wildrness in the Bankhead National Forest.

She was born and raised in Birmingham, graduating from Ramsay High School Birmingham-Southern College in 1942. She spent 18 months working for Southern Bell, then took a war-related job. After World War II she was employed by the Birmingham Community Chest, and later became one of the first women to work as a reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald. She married chemist Bob Burks in 1945.

The couple moved to Madison, Wisconsin where Bob completed his PhD in organic chemistry. They returned to Birmingham when he found work at Southern Research Institute. Mary became involved in the Birmingham Audubon Society, and found a mentor in fellow naturalist Blanche Dean.

With Dean's support, Burks and her husband founded the Alabama Conservancy, the first statewide environmental group, in 1967. Their first campaign was for preservation of the "Dismals" in North Alabama. In the late 1960s Burks and the Conservancy led the campaign to have the Sipsey Wilderness Area in Bankhead National Forest designated as a Wilderness Area by the United States. In order to accomplish it, the Wilderness Act had to be amended to allow designations east of the Mississippi River. Her efforts led to the passage of the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act of 1975. Under the act, 12,000 acres of the Sipsey were designated Wilderness Areas, along with parts of 12 other eastern states. Over the years she continued to lead environmental initiatives and to mentor successive generations of environmental leaders in Alabama.

Burks suffered a stroke in March 2006 and died nearly a year later of complications. She was survived by her husband and one son, Robin. A memorial service was held at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Burks was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 2010.