Wendy Jackson, executive director of the Freshwater Land Trust, is known as Mother Nature’s real estate agent, and there is no title more apt for this queen of conservation. Inspired and sustained by her lifelong passion for water and land, Wendy works tirelessly to enhance the green spaces and protect the water systems in the greater Birmingham area. With an abundance of knowledge and a warm, optimistic personality, Wendy is a champion for the city, and will be the first to encourage you to get outdoors and experience life outside the daily grind.
Where did you grow up and what inspired your passion for conservation?
I’m a country girl. I grew up right here in Alabama, just one county over in St. Clair County, and I actually still live on my family farm there. My son will be a third-generation farmer. Growing up, I had three lakes, a creek, fields and woods to play in, and I thought everyone had that until I went to college. It was then that I realized how lucky we really were. Most people have very little access to the outdoors. So that’s what I love about what I do; I want everybody to have a life like that, or at least have access to places like those that I had growing up. My father used to tell me, if you take care of the land, it will take care of you, and I think that’s as much true today as it was then.
What brought you to the Freshwater Land Trust?
I actually went from banking to an international conservation organization. I worked there for eight years, and I was spending a lot of time out of state, working on national teams. I loved what I did and I loved the organization, but I had young boys. So 15 years ago, I got a call about the Land Trust in Birmingham, which had just gotten started. It was perfect for me because it allowed me to do conservation with rivers, which I love, and I didn’t have to travel as much. That’s changing now that we’re getting a national reputation for our work here in Birmingham. The first time I got the invitation to speak at a national conservation event at Yale, I thought, “What in the world am I doing, going to Yale University to talk about what we’re doing in Birmingham?” But I got up there and listened to other stories from across the United States, and I have never been so proud of this community because I realized, after I listened to all the other presenters, why we were there. The city of Birmingham, UAB, the Jefferson County Health Department and the Freshwater Land Trust are working together and are on the cutting edge on this new national conversation around health and nature.
Tell us a little bit about the work the Freshwater Land Trust does.
The Freshwater Land Trust preserves the places that matter. Our focus is on preserving lands that enhance water quality and also connecting people to those lands. In Alabama, pretty much everything is a big watershed because we have more aquatic biodiversity than any other state. Anything from the new Rotary Trail to helping keep a farmer on his land can help benefit the water quality. So we have a great array of tools that we use, and we buy land when we need to and work with our partners in other places.
What do you love most about your job?
I love the people, but I love the land, too. You look at some of these projects, like Red Mountain Park. An idea was born there and then 10 years later, people are hiking and going on zip lines. I was there when the idea was born, and I saw how it happened. Most people that go out there don’t understand how much work it was or how much work it still is, but every time you go to one of these places, you hear people laughing and having a good time.
What is your ultimate goal in your work?
I hope to leave the world a better place than I found it. I know that’s what people say, but I hope at the end of my days that people will think, “she made a difference.” This job is long hours, but I love it so much. I really, truly, believe it makes a difference. We’re connected to our land here in Alabama. Even if you don’t live on the river, you at least live near a river, or creek or stream. We fish, we hunt, we farm, we hike, we bike. We like to be outdoors. And I think people are beginning to pick up on the fact that Alabama’s actually a pretty cool place. I think people are starting to get a different view of Alabama and the South, and I think you’re going to see our state change a lot over the next 50 years. So maybe the things we’re doing now will keep some of what we love about Alabama intact for everybody to enjoy.
What is your favorite thing about Birmingham?
Of course, I love the green space and all of that, but it’s more than that. I love the energy that’s here now. Because I’ve been around a long time and I remember spending time in downtown Birmingham in the ’80s. There wasn’t this energy here then. I’ve seen Birmingham experience this renaissance, and I’ve seen a great comeback happening around the green spaces and the trails and the parks. It is a dream come true for me, because we’re keeping some of our natural heritage while allowing the community to be hugely successful and grow economically, so that’s just a win all the way around. My favorite thing about Birmingham isn’t really a thing, it’s the energy that’s out there now.
What is one hidden gem that every Birmingham resident should visit or explore?
If you have not been to Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, you should go. It’s just 20 minutes from downtown. And there are other hidden treasures, like Brookside on Five Mile Creek. There’s a campground, canoes, mountain biking trails, all of this just 15 minutes up the road. The glade and vista at Moss Rock Preserve in Hoover, and then there’s Homewood Forest Preserve, right next to Homewood High School. I can’t give just one. There are a ton of little gems.
How do you like to spend your downtime?
It’s sort of like, where does the forest ranger go on vacation? Well, I love fresh water, and I do have my farm, and I’ll go and play with my animals. We have cows, chickens, goats, a pot belly pig, ducks and geese on the family farm, but the freshwater lady will take in some salt water. There’s a little cabin on the bay where the dolphins are, and I love to go there and kayak around.
What is one of your guilty pleasures?
Chocolate. Definitely chocolate.
What motto do you live your life by?
I have it stenciled on the wall in my office: “We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” I really believe that we should leave the world better than we found it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s all about relationships. You need to take the time to develop relationships, because those relationships are essential. People will open the door because we’re the Freshwater Land Trust, but they’ll do business with us because they like us and respect us. My advice to anyone is that I know that technology’s important, but raise your eyes up away from your phone and grip and grin and shake somebody’s hand and get to know them personally, because there are so many times when the chips are down that a relationship comes in and helps save the day.
Aside from family, friends and faith, name three things you can’t live without.
Water, books and young people—of course, I love my two little bitty granddaughters, but I love young people and their energy. Young people give me that energy and hope, and they have such passion and belief that they can leave the world a better place, and I like that.
Visit the Freshwater Land Trust website to learn more about the fantastic conservation parks, nature trails and other initiatives headed up by Wendy and her conservationist crew!
Thank you to Meg McKinney Photos for the terrific images of Wendy at the Freshwater Land Trust headquarters downtown and at McCallum Park in Vestavia Hills.