A Mountainous Task


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By Phillip Ratliff // Photography Provided by Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve

As any nonprofit development officer will tell you, not having money all but guarantees no one is going to give you any. After all, who wants to fund an organization on the brink of insolvency? The message that potential donors were sending Ruffner just a few short months ago followed this frustrating sort of logic: until you get your debt under control and revenue streams shored up, don’t look to us. 

2016-07-21_1299348197046627425Ruffner was locked in a vicious circle, but they weren’t without assets. As an organization, Ruffner has a strong sense of its environmental and educational mission. Its indefatigable team, led by an energetic new director, Carlee Sanford, carries this mission forward with enthusiasm and resourcefulness. Sanford and the Ruffner team have dug up—literally—surprising sources of revenue, including sales of compost and native plants grown onsite. Eventually, they persuaded a local bank to forgive roughly 75 percent of a substantial debt. (Ruffner paid off the rest.)

Looming rather peacefully over all this human capital is Ruffner itself, an ineluctably gorgeous 1,038 acres of mountainside. Ruffner Mountain is one of the largest privately managed urban nature preserves in the U.S. Located in a city famous for wresting resources from every nook and outcropping, Ruffner Mountain stands as an icon of survival. 

img_0860Ruffner, the nonprofit nature center, is tucked within Ruffner, the mountain, like a well-kept secret. Its aesthetic is organic and inductive, a sort of improvised, bottom-up design that is at once very natural and obviously quite personal. I don’t think it unfair to call parts of it somewhat eccentric. Certainly, no other publically accessible greenspace in Birmingham quite looks like it. The closest model is not a physical location, per se, but a set of principles—held by Auburn University’s Rural Studio. 

Ruffner, like the Rural Studio, gets its unique look and feel by stressing recycling and re-purposing extant materials, and by welcoming the community into the design and build process. Collaborating with the community over time to raise funds, assess need, and then to design and build structures focused on those needs is iterative and ongoing. Lately, Ruffner has been putting these principles to work in their latest endeavor, the East Side Park Restoration project. As it stands now, East Side Park is a five-acre chunk of graded dirt and asphalt tucked between the Roebuck Springs community and Ruffner’s northern boundary. Ruffner hopes to one day restore the site’s environmental and aesthetic integrity, and develop a fresh way to engage their Roebuck Springs neighbors. 

img_1008Ruffner will repurpose several structures. The park’s crumbling swimming pool will become a skate park. The A.skate Foundation—specializing in skateboarding lessons and opportunities for kids with autism—will provide programming. A graffiti-covered scoring tower overlooking an overgrown athletic field will become a birding tower. The Birmingham Audubon Society may one day incorporate the tower into its activities. 

Ruffner is bringing to the East Side project a wealth of environmental enhancements. Already, the Ruffner team has removed 30 years of invasive species growth. Soon, Ruffner designers will add a monarch butterfly waystation and bee “condos” to create a pollinator corridor. A swath of longleaf pine on the park’s eastern perimeter will become the nucleus of a more extensive species restoration effort.

Ruffner’s model balances two very different outcomes, ecological improvements and popular recreation. This may be a surprising juxtaposition, but it is a calculated move. Currently, Roebuck Springs residents must make a nine-minute drive to the nearest Ruffner entrance—and it’s hardly an intuitive route. Once East Side Park is completed, some 32,000 Roebuck Springs residents will have a quick and accessible point of entry to Ruffner’s vast system of trails and programming.

img_0907Ruffner also sees opportunity to add a new chapter to the East Side Park’s 55-year, albeit spotty, history. 

Also known as South Roebuck Park, East Side Park began as a private park built through bond funding. In 1963, it added a swimming pool, access to which required a $200 membership bond. East Side Park was, effectively, a private club. 

In 1995, Walter Energy acquired East Side Park. Then, around 1999, Ruffner acquired the ailing property and vowed to one day make it a part of the preserve. 


Twenty years later
, Ruffner, a nonprofit once on the brink, stands ready to transform this once-private enclave into a source of public engagement with the new Ruffner. 


Ruffner’s dreams for East Side Park include a host of recreational resources, including a skate park, a bird viewing tower, a playscape, a sensory garden—all supported by educational programming aligned with the Ruffner mission. 

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