Alabama biodiversity
EcoJustice Radio

Conserving Civil Rights History and Biological Diversity in Alabama


EcoJustice RadioEco Justice Radio journeys through Alabama’s lush biodiversity and storied civil rights landmarks with Bill Finch and Philip Howard. We uncover the intertwined narratives of ecological conservation and the fight for equality that have shaped the state’s legacy. Learn about the Alabama River Diversity Network’s mission to safeguard both the environment and the memories of those who marched for justice. Don’t miss this profound conversation and the short film, “54 Miles to Home,” on the power of place and memory in shaping a more equitable world.

PatreonAs little as $5 a month goes a long way toward supporting our production staff all year while keeping us corporate-free. Become an EcoJustice Radio patron today.

Subscribe to EcoJustice Radio:

Apple PodcastssoundcloudspotifyGoogle PodcastsYouTube

Alabama biodiversityBiodiversity and Civil Rights: Alabama’s Untold Stories

What is now known as Alabama and the environs of the Deep South, boast exceptional biodiversity and capture the imagination with its rich cultural and historical significance. It is the ancestral home of Cherokees, Choctaws, Muscogee or Creeks, and numerous lesser known Native nations and also the place where civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael planted the seeds of Black Power. Moreover, Dr. King famously marched from Selma to Montgomery, weaving along the Alabama River to manifest a dream of unity.

Listen to rich stories of ecological restoration and preservation of places of civil rights history that is Alabama. We welcome Bill Finch of Alabama River Diversity Network and the Paint Rock Forest Research Center, and Phillip Howard, Project Manager of Civil Rights People and Places Initiative. They share the vision and mission of these non-profit organizations dedicated to preserving and promoting the extraordinarily diverse natural and human heritage of this essential region.

Interview Excerpts: Preserving Nature’s and Civil Rights’ Legacy

Alabama River Diversity Network has more than 20 partners

Carry Kim: Bill Finch, could you first tell us who are the partners behind Alabama River Diversity Network and how this coalescing of various orgs and people came about?

Bill Finch: Yeah, well, glad to do that. We now have more than 20 partners, but we started out a group with the National Park and Conservation Association with a group called Conservation Alabama. We have the Nature Conservancy involved. We have a lot of civil rights groups and civil rights memorial groups. The, Friends of the Lowndes County Civil Rights Movement has been a big member. Josephine Bowling McCall, who’s been a real player in memorializing civil rights events, was an early member of our group. And I could go on with a very long list of grassroots groups that are part of what we’re doing. Philip’s working with conservation fund, and they’re listening into what we’re doing, too. So we’re pulling together a large number of people, and this was our thought.

We have an exceptionally diverse place. It’s like, Alabama has a lot to teach the world about diversity. That may seem like everybody’s saying, well, we need to teach Alabama about diversity, and there’s a lot we need to learn here about diversity. But the place and the history has a lot to tell people about diversity, not only about the things.

I’ll make a short list. But if you look at Alabama, Alabama is the center of biological diversity. Biodiversity, as we call it in eastern North America, really astonishing. it represents about 1% of the nation’s landscape, but it has two thirds of the nation’s mussel species. It has, 55% of the nation’s turtle species. It is the center of turtle diversity.

Carry Kim: Wow.

Bill Finch: In the Western Hemisphere, it’s got 40% of the nation’s fish species. A single river in Alabama is likely to have more fish species than the entire state of California. We got two thirds of the global diversity of hickories. We’ve got, 45% of the nation’s oak species. We’re the center of oak diversity. We’re the center of Magnolia diversity. The list can go on and on. Oh, I got to mention that we’re the center of sunflower diversity in the world. Who would have thought? You got all these things going on?

And then there’s another list, and that’s the human list of diversity. And it’s huge. And it begins with names that we have forgotten, names like the Koasati, the Uchi, the Nanyaba. The Alabama, the Mauvilla, the Pensacola, the Pascagula, the Biloxi tribe after tribe, Appalachia. I cannot forget the Appalachia. There’s so many tribes whose name we’ve forgotten, not just the Choctaws and the Creeks and the Cherokees, which were tribes that were more recognized, consolidated by Jackson and by European conquest, but all of these tribes with different languages, different cultures, different people that were so much a part of this place.

Alabama River

So it has a very long history. In 1250 ad, Alabama was probably the center, the urban center of North America. Two largest cities in North America were here in Alabama in 1250 ad. So all these things are really important. And it’s interesting, why were there so much diversity here in terms of people in a place that has so much diversity? And how did they live together? How did they make mistakes together in that environment? But there’s a long history there that helps us to understand a little bit about diversity.

And then, of course, there’s the modern history, which is fascinating, tragic, beautiful, heroic, all of those things mixed together with European immigration into North America, the, advent of slavery, which began with the Indian tribes, and, accelerated with the movement of African slaves into Alabama. And, a long and terrible history through the civil war, where Alabama was the center of Civil War activity, center of civil war government for a long time, up to those, incredible marches in 1965, where, Martin Luther King is marching through the middle of Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. And there’s probably a reason he chose that place. I suspect there is a reason he chose that place. right along the Alabama River, all of these things are merging, with Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown and all of these other efforts, the unsung heroes of civil rights throughout Alabama.

And we felt like you couldn’t understand one without the other. You couldn’t understand why the civil rights was centered here. That effort was centered here. If you didn’t understand the biological diversity of this place. And we didn’t feel like we could understand the biological diversity of the place if we didn’t see it through the diverse eyes of humans. And for once, bring all the ods to the table in terms of thinking about what does this diverse place represent, how do we celebrate human diversity, and how does human diversity benefit from biological diversity? So all those things merged. We brought a lot of groups together, and it’s been a great program, and we’re really excited about it.

Right now. We have Black Belt Heritage Area legislation in Congress. Of course, Congress got a lot to deal with right now, but the legislation is there, it’s ready to go. We’re very optimistic about what can happen. and that’s big National Park Service legislation that will make a big difference throughout this area. We feel like we need a big organizing principle in this huge area the size of New Jersey, as I’ve said. And one of the things we did was to include 19 Alabama counties in something called a heritage area, which is a national park service designation. This gives the National Park Service a chance to really begin to explore the opportunities here and to help us develop plans for conservation and preservation throughout the whole region. We think a lot of big things are going to come out of that, but we will have a big heritage area. There are heritage areas all across the country. There’s some in California, there are some here. there’s already another one here in Alabama, but this is probably going to be one of the bigger ones.

Bill Finch is the founding director of Paint Rock Forest Research Center and founding partner of the Alabama River Diversity Network. Finch is author of Longleaf, Far As the Eye Can See, an exploration of the potential in North America’s most diverse forest ecosystem. He is former conservation director for the Nature Conservancy’s Alabama Chapter, and an award-winning writer on gardening, farming and environmental issues.

Phillip Howard is Project Manager for The Conservation Fund’s Civil Rights People and Places Initiative. He recently produced a film about the Campsites of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail called “54 Miles to Home.”

54 Miles to Home

Podcast Website:
Podcast Blog:
Support the Podcast:

Executive Producer: Jack Eidt
Interview by Carry Kim
Intro by Jessica Aldridge
Engineer and Original Music: Blake Quake Beats
Show Created by Mark and JP Morris
Episode 122
Image: EJR with thanks to Bill Finch and Phillip Howard

Updated 5 February 2024

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Pingback: Conserving Civil Rights History and Biological Diversity in Alabama - Diversity Employer

  2. Pingback: Recreation and Leisure in African American History - WilderUtopia

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.