Mitchell Reid, state director of the Nature Conservancy Alabama Chapter, believes nature and people are part of a greater whole, and by protecting nature, we protect ourselves. “Our organization’s mission is to protect the land and water upon which all life depends,” he says. “When you break that down, you realize all life means humans, too — it encompasses everything.”
This philosophy is one that Judy Crittenden embraced some time ago. The great outdoors called to Judy throughout her childhood – and it didn’t take long for her to notice the smallest moving parts. “I grew up in a family that didn’t belong to a country club, and my mother didn’t drive,” she says. “I had a bicycle, and I rode it everywhere. At my grandparents’ house, I would be out in the woods, building little structures out of limbs and leaves. When you’re doing things like that, you notice what’s going on with the birds, insects and flowers.”
Her love for birds, insects and flowers would greatly influence her life. Judy married her late first husband, Dick Crittenden, who also revered nature and inspired his wife to birdwatch, leading the two of them to become avid members of the Audubon Society. In Judy’s words, as her involvement with worthwhile causes grew – any cause that tugged at her heart – the Nature Conservancy became a seamless fit.
Today, after years of being a board member, she is co-chair for the Conservancy’s fundraising campaign with a mission to raise $25 million. The funds from this ambitious goal have myriad purposes, from maintaining Alabama’s beautiful coast to protecting 23 million acres of forests, including controlled burning. “The burns are important because certain animals depend on them,” Judy notes. “An Eastern Indigo Snake, for example, uses the tortoise’s chamber — the tortoise does the work of creating it. But the tortoise can’t create those caverns without us burning the ground.”
Everything is connected, notes Mitchell, adding that Alabama is unique because it connects the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. The rivers and forests of Alabama are teeming with life, some of it rather exclusive, all of it depending on this fertile environment to thrive and on us to protect it. The Nature Conservancy has been leading these efforts worldwide since the mid-twentieth century, and the local Alabama chapter is a key to maintaining the beauty of the state for years to come.
“We wouldn’t have these amazing river systems in Birmingham if we didn’t have abundant, forested land sheltering and protecting those systems,” he says. “All the water from Birmingham flows to Mobile bay, and Mobile’s coast is special because of that. If we can’t protect the top of the mountain, we can’t protect the coast. Birmingham is the beating heart of an amazing system.”
Judy’s enthusiasm for the Nature Conservancy, along with her influence in Birmingham, have made her an important part of the mission. Even before her role as fundraising co-chair, Judy pursued potential members and donors with zeal, insisting they learn more about the Conservancy’s importance. “I always love walking into a room with Judy because it’s like walking in with your own cheerleader for the work we’re doing,” Mitchell laughs. “She is a fearless progressive.”
Protecting underdogs comes naturally to Judy, as does changing minds and hearts on weighty topics. The tragic bombing of 16th street Baptist Church happened right before she went to college, inspiring her to think deeply about racial relations. “I didn’t grow up in a progressive home,” she admits. “But when I spoke about the equal rights amendment in Florence, Alabama, my daddy came to hear me speak. He came up to me afterward with tears in his eyes and said, ‘I had no idea.’”
So, does Judy feel similarly drawn to protecting the land, the water and the plants and animals? “You betcha,” she says, without missing a beat. “We don’t have a choice. I love it, and it’s so important.”
To her, truly loving nature is not just loving outdoor activities but also its quiet, mysterious ways. “We have a house in Mentone, and when we go there, I love seeing the flowers peeking out — I just love looking for them,” she beams. “My husband, Philippe, says to people that he married me because I’m a birdwatcher. And now, he’s one too!”
To learn more about the Nature Conservancy’s work in Alabama, visit nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/alabama/.