I’m going to get all of the disclosure and disclaimers — which are considerable — out of the way right up front. I’ll start with the simple fact that I love the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, and consider it one of the most precious jewels in Birmingham’s civic crown.
For those unfamiliar, Ruffner consists of more than 1,000 acres of wooded ridges and hollows that lie just a few miles from downtown Birmingham. The mountain is honeycombed by long-abandoned iron ore mines and cratered by a pair of limestone quarries, so that in addition to the outdoor recreational opportunities it provides, Ruffner offers a unique glimpse into the history and development of our community.
As one who cherishes time outdoors and has an unending fascination with the past, present and future of Birmingham, I can’t ask for much better. In those interests, I am not alone, as approximately 35,000 people visited Ruffner Mountain last year, not counting 15,000 students from local schools who participated in the various educational and recreational programs conducted there.
Above and beyond all else, I love Ruffner Mountain because my kids love it. In our family photo library, there are more pictures of them at Ruffner than at any other single place. Both took their first long hikes there, and neither can get enough of the trails, the wetlands, the big quarry, the abandoned mining structures and equipment that dot the woods, or the fissure in the limestone near the summit that opens down into a small cave where we occasionally find a brown bat or two roosting.
The kids’ favorite spot and mine is the Hawk’s View Overlook. There, high above the floor of Jones Valley, with the downtown skyline visible in the middle distance, you can look near the foot of a gnarled pine at a mossy limestone boulder that is littered with marine fossils. The little creatures — brachiopods, bryozoans, crinoids — were embedded in the rock when it was the part of the bed of the shallow inland sea that covered what is now the North American continent, and the land that would become Alabama was situated somewhere south of the equator.
If it’s not clear by now, I will underscore my love for Ruffner Mountain by telling you that back in 2008, I began — and, over the following two years, substantially completed — writing a book about it. It is a “deep history,” encompassing the history of the nature preserve, which got its start in 1977; the role of the Ruffner mines and quarries in the early development of Birmingham; and the formation of the mountain by geologic processes that date back in excess of 500 million years.
(Parenthetically, the Ruffner book project — which, in the further interest of full disclosure, received initial funding from the governing body of the Nature Preserve — went on hiatus in 2010 as, among other things, I became preoccupied with starting Weld for Birmingham. I’m pleased to say that I expect to resume work on it very soon, and to produce a final manuscript over the next several months. Once the book is published, all proceeds from its sale will benefit Ruffner.)
With all of this as prelude, you can imagine my dismay when I learned last Friday (May 24) of the exclusion of Ruffner from the FY 2014 city budget proposed by Birmingham Mayor William Bell. The city owns approximately half of the acreage at Ruffner, including the land on which the $4.5 million visitor center, opened in 2009, is situated. It is the only such municipally owned facility — including, among others, the Museum of Art, the Civil Rights Institute and the Jazz Hall of Fame — for which the mayor’s office opted not to recommend operating funds for the coming year.
The omission is a repeat of last year, when Ruffner also found itself zeroed out of the mayor’s proposed budget. That led to some feverish lobbying of the Birmingham City Council, which has final approval of city spending. Ultimately, the council funded Ruffner at $200,000 for FY 2013. After a meeting with Mayor Bell a few months ago and numerous subsequent conversations with members of his staff, the Ruffner board and staff felt assured that the same amount would be recommended this year, and that the preserve would be moved to a budgetary category that would help secure its operating funds for the foreseeable future.
“We had a handshake deal,” says Robbie Fearn, Ruffner’s executive director. “We met with the mayor and felt we had an agreement, and indications from his staff were that everything was on track. Then the budget came out with no money for Ruffner.”
Funding from the city is critical, Fearn says, for the “operational floor” it provides the nature preserve. City funding allows the Ruffner staff to focus its private fundraising on making improvements and addressing other facility and staffing needs, rather than on simply maintaining an amenity of which the city is the primary owner. For instance, thanks in part to the presence of city funding last year, Birmingham’s Goodrich Foundation provided funds that allowed Ruffner to hire a development director to focus full-time on solidifying and diversifying its private sector support.
“Having that operational certainty allows us to go to private donors with the message, ‘We’re on solid footing, so help us become great,’” Fearn says. He adds that he and his board have “worked hard over the past few years to prove our value and create an enduring relationship with the city,” and notes that the number of visitors to Ruffner has nearly doubled over the past four years, while its revenues from educational programs are up roughly 400 percent over the past three.
Fearn says the lack of a funding recommendation from the mayor puts Ruffner “back at square one.” That means another aggressive lobbying campaign, urging the city council to make good on the promise apparently broken by Mayor Bell (the mayor’s office has not responded to my request for comment on this situation).
“The council has been great to us in the past,” says Fearn. “We’re hopeful that they will be responsive again, and we’re asking folks all over the community who love Ruffner to contact their councilor and help us get this rectified.”