Located in eastern Jefferson County, straddling the border between Birmingham and Irondale, Ruffner Mountain Nature Center and Preserve is one of the nation's largest urban nature preserves, at more than 1,000 acres. The forested ridge of the Appalachian foothills on which the preserve lies is home to a diverse array of distinct natural plant communities and wildlife habitats.
Visitors may experience the preserve via more than 12 miles of trails that range from rocky outcrops overlooking Birmingham to wetland boardwalks to routes through remnants of Birmingham's historic mining past. The Tree House (formerly known as the Tree Top Visitor Center), which opened in 2010, is an LEED Gold-certified visitor/educational center sitting high in the tree canopy and featuring a living plant roof and sustainable building materials. The building has won awards from the Cahaba River Society, the Birmingham Business Journal, the Association of Builders and Contractors–Alabama Chapter, and the Alabama Council of the American Institute of Architects among others, and houses an information center and gift shop, exhibits on native Alabama wildlife, offices, and meeting rooms. Ruffner Mountain Nature Center draws approximately 30,000 visitors a year.
The origins of the preserve lie in the region's mining history. It is named for William Henry Ruffner, a noted educator and geologist from Virginia who in 1882 mapped the geologic features of the mountain, including the iron ore and other resources valued by iron and steel companies. In the late 1880s, Sloss Iron and Steel Company established mining operations on the mountain that ran until 1953; iron ore was sent directly to Sloss Furnaces by railcar from the Ruffner Mines. The site was then abandoned, and plant and animal communities began to re-establish themselves on the landscape. In the 1970s, a public-private partnership of citizen groups representing local residents and civic leaders were able to secure 28 acres of land that were threatened with development. In 1977, they formed the nonprofit Ruffner Mountain Nature Coalition Inc. to manage the property and opened the first nature center in the state. Over the years, donations from corporations, individuals, the Trust for Public Land, and the state's Forever Wild Program have expanded the preserve to more than 1,000 acres. The City of Birmingham owns approximately 500 acres of land at the preserve, and another 500 acres were donated by Jefferson County to the Trust for Public Land and the Forever Wild Program. The Ruffner Mountain Nature Coalition Inc. owns the initial 28 acres, several contiguous lots donated by former Birmingham City Council president Nina Miglionico, and 34 acres donated in 2004 by the United Land Company, a division of Jim Walter Resources. An additional 500 contiguous acres of undeveloped property remain under industrial holding; the Trust for Public Land is assisting the Coalition with negotiations to help acquire the property.
The facilities initially began operations from a small house located near the site of the current visitor center. The administrative/visitor offices have been housed in three different structures all located near the site of the current Tree House, but only one of the older houses now remains on the property. From the beginning of the organization, the mission has included educational and recreational programming led by staff and volunteer naturalists. The organization, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, is governed by a 15-member (minimum) term-limited volunteer Board of Directors, and day-to-day operations are overseen by an executive director who is hired by the Board. Staff typically includes five full-time people, including an administrator, naturalists, land managers, and animal care providers. In addition, part-time and seasonal staff positions include college interns and teaching naturalists. The annual budget is about $400,000.
Ruffner offers a variety of educational programs. Staff have developed on-site and outreach programs for K-12 school children that align with state curriculum standards, and the nature preserve serves as an outdoor classroom and scientific field laboratory for high school and college students. Day camps, scouting programs, and weekend and public interest workshops offer educational opportunities to other segments of the public. The Tree House also houses a small collection of live wildlife native to Alabama, including small mammals, amphibians, turtles, snakes, and owls used as part of the educational programming. Conservation management staff and volunteers help protect the estimated $95 million value of the surrounding forest by focusing on invasive plant removal, native plant restoration, and wildlife habitat enhancement as well as limiting the impact of humans. A conservation plan developed by staff and volunteer scientists from local colleges and universities, including the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Samford University, Birmingham-Southern College, Auburn University, and the University of Alabama, was adopted by the Board of Directors in 2007. It includes: strategies for conservation work and protection of areas of high biodiversity and plants and animals on endangered, rare, or watch lists; use guidelines that direct human access to certain areas of the property and away from sensitive areas; maintenance of the trail system; and guidelines for activities that best serve visitors while also protecting sensitive areas of the property. For example, campfires and ATVs are prohibited within the preserve.
In addition to its educational activities, Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve offers numerous other activities for visitors, including hiking, bird watching, exhibits on mining history, and meeting facilities. Hiking trails range from easy level terrain, to strenuous 1,000-foot changes in elevation. Sites of interest include Hawk's View Overlook, with a view of downtown Birmingham, a boardwalk trail through a three-acre wetland, and several historic remnants of the mining operations, including quarries, old rail beds, and iron ore crushers. The preserve also offers, public restrooms, vending machines, picnic tables, and rental facilities for meetings and parties. Guided hikes and other activities for the general public are offered most weekends; fees vary and reservations are suggested.