By Pat Byington

On the grounds of one of the world's largest cathedrals, St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral in New York City, is a simple piece of art: seven human-shaped arches, each representing a generation, lined up in a row.

Next to this graceful sculpture is a gray footstone topped by a plaque with this inscription: "In all our deliberations we must be mindful of the impact of our decisions on the seven generations to follow ours." -- from the Great Law of the Six Nations of the Iroquois

Most folks count a generation as 20 years, so the total would be 140 years, or two lifetimes. What a mission statement. When we confront difficult environmental issues, the Great Law of the Six Nations of the Iroquois offers us the best path. And if there were ever a state that should adopt such a law, it would be Alabama, because we have the most to lose.

In 2002, The Nature Conservancy released a report called "States of the Union: Ranking America's Biodiversity" in which Alabama was ranked fifth nationally for the most species. Digging deeper into the numbers, Alabama came up first nationally in the number of different kinds of freshwater fish, mussels, snails and turtles. Also, to the dismay of many Louisiana citizens, Alabama ranked first in the number of different kinds of crayfish.

According to the longtime environmental writer and Nature Conservancy staffer Bill Finch, Alabama has played a critical role in maintaining the biological richness of the entire Eastern forest, from New England to the Gulf of Mexico.

For example, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, often described as the most diverse national park, has just more than 100 different tree species and 12different kinds of oak trees over a 500,000-acre area. In southwest Alabama's Red Hills near Monroeville, Finch said he has identified more than130 varieties of trees and 20 kinds of oak trees in an area one-tenth the size of the Smokies.

Finch said it's not hard to find similar diversity in dozens of native forests throughout the state, from the Paint Rock Valley, in northeast Alabama near Huntsville, to the forests along the Cahaba River and the coastal forests along the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

These Alabama forests have likely played a critical role in nourishing North American forest diversity through hundreds of thousands of years, and they'll likely be called on to share their wealth in the future. Alabama is home to one of nature's largest libraries. We must think in terms of protecting our special places and the environment for "generations."

This year marks my 20th year, a generation, working for groups such as the Alabama Environmental Council, the Wilderness Society, the Alabama Environmental Management Commission and the Forever Wild Board of Trustees. There was one special moment in my memory that the Great Law of the Six Nations of the Iroquois – Seven Generations -- was followed. That was when a very diverse group of people convened in 1992 to write the Forever Wild constitutional amendment.

For nearly 20 years since its passage, Forever Wild has protected more than 200,000 acres across the state and is one of the most successful conservation laws in Alabama's history. More important, even today, that diverse group of people on opposite sides of the political spectrum continues to work together to make Forever Wild succeed for generations to come. On reflection, we were all working together for future generations. Forever.

Forty years ago this week, Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson may have summed it up best when he said on the original Earth Day, two generations ago:

"Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures."
Byington is senior associate with The Wilderness Society and publisher of Bama Environmental News.
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